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Friday, October 23, 2015

Concert Review: The Prodigal and the Exile

The BSO ends its epic stand at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Prince Alexander (Nikolai Cherkasov) prepares for battle in a scene from Alexander Nevsky.
Photo © 1938 Mosfilm.
Under the baton of new music director Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has, this week, treated Carnegie Hall to some of the most exciting performances of this still young concert season. On Thursday night, conductor and players went for the throat with a thrilling one-two program of Prokofiev’s Aleksandr Nevsky and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a daunting program for any orchestra worth their salt.



Prokofiev’s 1939 cantata (drawn from the composer’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film of the same name) provided an opportunity for Mr. Nelsons and guest choral director James Bagwell to showcase the quality of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, that all-volunteer ensemble that serves as the singing voice of the mighty BSO. This score is rich in orchestral opportunities, with skittering strings sonorous growls for the tuba and lowest trombones, and at its heart, the Battle on the Ice, a thrilling depcition of all-out war between Teutonic knights and the Russian peasants charged with defending  the Motherland from invasion.

This is music from Stalin’s time, created as Russia faced the threat of a German invasion with Hitler’s rise to power. Prokofiev gives the Russian peasants cheerful folksongs and determined chorales to sing, both extolling the battle glories of Nevsky and his warriors as well as the doughty common folk. By contrast, the invaders are assigned faux-Medieval chants (sung, dolefully in Latin) emphasizing the Russian paranoia about Catholicism and the arrogance and barbarity of the enemy.

The Tanglewood players and the BSO threw themselves into both roles with enthusiasm, switching easily between languages and creating mighty waves of sound. The Battle on the Ice, with its shivering, divided strings and brutal, block-like chords depicting the Teuton army’s horrible fate and the breaking ice of Lake Pepius. Next was The Field of the Dead sung with great emotion and beauty by mezzo Nadezhda Serdyuk. In this movement, Prokofiev preaches to the listener of the horror and futility of war, a brief moment of sanity before the glorious finale celebrating the triumph of his medieval hero.

While Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union in 1936, Sergei Rachmaninoff got the hell out of the country in 1917. The Rachmaninoffs (the composer, his wife, two daughters and a handful of orchestral scores) took an open sled to Helsinki six weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution. Rachmaninoff embarked on an international career in exile, becoming one of the most celebrated concert pianists of the 20th century and, with the success of his Second and Third Piano Concertos, a sought-after composer. The Symphonic Dances is his last work, written in his American exile.

Mr. Nelsons led a fiery and incisive account of these three movements, driving Rachmaninoff's dark-hued rhythms forward with big, purposeful gestures from the cellos and brass. This orchestra likes playing for him, and rewarded his efforts with a muscular and bold performance that brought out the very best in this music--including the motto theme from Rachmaninoff's (failed) Symphony No. 1 slipped into the coda. The mournful second movement showed the composer's sensitive side, with woodwind solos that built to a climax before unleashing a fiery central section.

In the finale, Rachmaninoff's obsession with death looms to the fore. This movement is written around the Dies Irae, the medieval church mode used at funeral masses to signify the wrath of God on the Day of Judgment. As the last movement boiled to its climax, Mr. Nelsons drew heavenly thunder from his brass and percussion. Choosing to give the last beat of the work on an upward swing of his baton, he held it in the air until the last waves of the rolling gong crash subsided into funereal silence. After that: appreciative tumult. The orchestra had triumphed over death.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.