Listening Week 6: BSO and the Romantic Age

BSO at home: Listening Week 6
BSO and the Romantic Age

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Great Performances from the BSO Archives, selected by BSO Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg.

For this final week of performances from the radio archives of the Boston Symphony, I’ve chosen compositions both large-scale and small from the Romantic era. Several of these are based on or are inspired by works of literature, and feature some of the great conductors of past generations. To round out the week, though, we come full-circle in our listening journey – to two recordings by our current music director Andris Nelsons, whose performance of Sibelius’ 2nd symphony was the very first offering in our ‘BSO at Home’ series last month.

Listening Week 6 Playlist

For continuous playback of each day's music at the highest fidelity, choose the SoundCloud player. For the ability to listen to individual movements separately, choose the "Listen" button on each day's section.

The BSO sincerely thanks our generous donors whose gifts supported concerts, guest artist appearances, and pieces for performances that were scheduled to take place this week:
Tuesday, April 28: The Eric Birch Memorial Concert
Thursday, April 30: The Mary W. Nelson Memorial Concert
     Thursday evening's appearance by Elizabeth Rowe is supported by the Roberta M. Strang Memorial Fund
     Thursday evening's performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 is supported by a gift in memory of Emily Howe Marks
Friday, May 1: The Walter Piston Society Concert
Saturday, May 2: The Alan S. Bressler Memorial Concert
     Saturday evening’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Pathetique is supported by a generous gift by Kurt and Therese Melden

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This week, we’ll hear three works based on Shakespeare. One of the best-known and most beloved is Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture after Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. Its clear design and soaring melodic material distinguish the piece as one of the finest examples of the 19th century form known generally as the ‘tone poem’: musical works which tell an extra-musical story. Tchaikovsky was fascinated by Romeo and Juliet, returning to the idea throughout his career before settling on the final form of the Overture. He’d even considered an opera on the subject and had made preliminary sketches for at least one scene involving the two lovers. Igor Markevitch (1912-83) was an important Russian composer and conductor, who was as much a champion of the avant-garde as he was a significant interpreter of the classics. He led the BSO during only two seasons at Symphony Hall. This performance of Romeo and Juliet is characterized by a remarkable attention to detail (attributable perhaps to Markevitch’s insights as a composer himself) and tremendous rhythmic freedom.

Samuel Mayes (1911-90) was an American cellist, hired by Koussevitzky as principal cello of the BSO in 1948 – a position he held until 1965. He was a frequent soloist with the orchestra but also made several commercial recordings. This 1959 performance of Strauss’ tone poem Don Quixote – an elaborate set of variations for orchestra with cello solo, depicting major incidents from Cervantes’ novel – conveys a real sense of authority, as the conductor, Pierre Monteux, had led the work in the presence of the composer decades earlier in Amsterdam. One critic present for this BSO interpretation wrote of Samuel Mayes’ “fabulous vibrato, accuracy of pitch, and grace of purpose,” while noting that the cellist “made his heart sing with a glory almost beyond description.” But what comes across especially is the sense of spontaneity that Mayes and Monteux find – as if they were telling this musical story for the first time 

The Konzertstück by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) belongs to a category of short, one-movement works for piano and orchestra that has all but vanished from orchestral programs. This is not a tragic or profoundly emotional work; rather, it is a showpiece for extreme virtuosity, but within the bounds of good taste – elegance is as stringent a requirement for this piece as speed, fluency, and accuracy. The pianist Jorge Bolet (1914-1990) was born in Cuba but spent most of his life in America. He was a super-virtuoso, which led many critics to dismiss him as superficial. In his last decade, Bolet made a series of recordings for London/Decca, unfortunately rather late in the day and when the pianist was no longer in good health. So, it is wonderful to hear him, live and in his prime, in the Weber Konzertstück, where one can admire how he makes every technical challenge sound both effortless and musical as well as dazzling. Erich Leinsdorf and the BSO are considerate accompanists in this performance, which took place at Tanglewood in July 1968.

This week’s major offering is a recording of a concert performance of Berlioz’s valedictory work, the opera Béatrice et Bénédict. The composer wrote the libretto himself, basing it on Much Ado About Nothing by his beloved Shakespeare. He retains the most popular characters, Beatrice and Benedick, who conduct a ‘merry war’ of wits as a way of disguising their feelings for each other and even from themselves; in a very simple plot, their friends scheme to bring them to self-knowledge. The work is elegantly structured, with a major aria for Bénédict in the first act, one for Béatrice in the second, a duet for both in each act, a trio for men in the first act and a trio for the women in the second, and a scene in each act for a new comic character that Berlioz added to Shakespeare, the musical pedant Somarone. Best of all are the two wondrous moments of musical repose, one for each act: the nocturne that closes the first and the trio for the women in the second.

Despite the orchestra’s long association with the music of Berlioz, Seiji Ozawa introduced Béatrice et Bénédict to the repertory of the BSO in performances in Boston and at Tanglewood in 1984 (the orchestra had been playing the overture since 1949). Federica von Stade, a frequent guest of the BSO throughout her long and distinguished career, found herself in a particularly congenial role and triumphed in Béatrice’s magnificent soliloquy in the second act. Opposite her, as Bénédict, was American tenor Jon Garrison. The veteran Italian bass Italo Tajo takes the comic role of the drunken, self-important musician Somarone. After decades of singing the major bass roles in the international repertory, Tajo stepped over to Broadway, succeeding Ezio Pinza in South Pacific; he continued to perform character roles in opera until he was past 75 years old, and the audience’s roars of laughter during this performance are testimony to his sense of comic timing.

Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture Hamlet has never enjoyed the popularity in the concert hall of Romeo and Juliet, but it includes all the hallmarks of the composer’s gifts for narrative and musical drama. It’s also one of his most original and daring works in the genre. Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) was the legendary conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and one of the best-known figures in classical music during his lifetime, due in large part to his involvement in the Disney film Fantasia. Stokowski knew the sonic possibilities of an orchestra as well as anyone and frequently adjusted a composer’s orchestration - or the seating arrangement of an orchestra on the concert stage – to realize his sonic intentions. He conducted the BSO on only a handful of occasions, relatively late in his conducting career in the 1960s.

The final two offerings on ‘BSO at Home’ are two of the most beloved works of the orchestral repertoire: Brahms’ first and second symphonies. Little need be said of these symphonic masterpieces, which stand at the core of the world’s concert programs. These performances by the Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons were part of a two-week cycle of the complete Brahms symphonies and piano concerti, given in Symphony Hall in November 2016. Spacious, yet highly dramatic and richly detailed, we hear the BSO in all its glory.



Anthony Fogg

Igor Markevitch
Photographer: National Concert and Artists Corporation

April 27
TCHAIKOVSKY Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy
Igor Markevitch, conductor
(Symphony Hall, March 19, 1955)

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Samuel Mayes
Photographer: John Brook

April 28
STRAUSS Don Quixote
     1. Introduction
     2. Theme, Don Quixote, Knight of the sorrowful countenance
     3. Variation I, The battle with the windmills
     4. Variation II, The battle with the sheep
     5. Variation III, Dialogue between knight and squire
     6. Variation IV, Adventure with the penitents
     7. Variation V, The knight's vision of Dulcinea
     8. Variation VI, The false Dulcinea 
     9. Variation VII, The ride through the air 
    10. Variation VIII, The voyage in the magic boat
    11. Variation IX, The battle with the friars
    12. Variation X, Defeat by the knight of the white moon
    13. Finale, Death of Don Quixote 
Pierre Monteux, conductor
Samuel Mayes, cello
Joseph de Pasquale, viola
(Symphony Hall, January 24, 1959)

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Jorge Bolet, 1968
Photographer: Antony di Gesu

April 29

WEBER Konzertstück for piano and orchestra
Erich Leinsdorf, conductor
Jorge Bolet, piano
(Tanglewood, July 26, 1968)

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Seiji Ozawa conducting, 1984

April 30

BERLIOZ Béatrice et Bénédict
     1. Act I
     2. Act II
Seiji Ozawa, conductor
Sylvia McNair, soprano
Frederica von Stade and Janice Taylor, mezzo-sopranos
Jon Garrison, tenor
David Parsons, baritone
John Ostendorf, bass-baritone
Italo Tajo, bass
William Young, actor
Tanglewood Choir and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor
(Tanglewood, August 8, 1984)

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Leopold Stokowski conductingMay 1

TCHAIKOVSKY Hamlet, Fantasy Overture
Leopold Stokowski, conductor
(Symphony Hall, January 13, 1968)

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May 2Andris Nelsons, 2016

BRAHMS Symphony No. 1 in C minor
     1. Un poco sostenuto - Allegro
     2. Andante sostenuto
     3. Un poco allegretto e grazioso
     4. Adagio - Piú Andante - Allegro non troppo ma con brio - Piú Allegro
Andris Nelsons, conductor
(Symphony Hall, November 10, 2016)

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Andris Nelsons, 2016
Photographer: Michael Blanchard
May 3

BRAHMS Symphony No. 2 in D
     1. Allegro non troppo
     2. Adagio non troppo
     3. Allegretto grazioso
     4. Allegro con spirito
Andris Nelsons, conductor
(Symphony Hall, November 11, 2016)

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Archival images courtesy BSO Archives


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