BSO's Greig (& Mahler): Leif Peepers

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes with the BSO
(photo: BSO)

For the first half of the unabashedly popular program presented this past week by the Boston Symphony, the orchestra, reunited with Conductor Andris Nelsons and the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, played the popular work of Edvard Grieg, arguably his most renowned longer piece, the Piano concerto in A Minor, Opus 16 (utilizing the Schumann Piano concerto as a template). Though he composed it in 1869, at the age of twenty-four, he continued to tweak the piece for the rest of his career. One Norwegian analyst has pointed out that the opening piano, built of a sequence consisting of a descending second followed by a descending third, is a very characteristic Norwegian musical gesture, typifying as it does the pervasiveness of folk imagery and sound. This first movement is loaded with accessible themes, some obviously derived from one another, others strongly contrasting. It creates richness that has played a significant role in maintaining the concerto’s appeal. The animato section of the first movement includes tunes similar to those used by fiddlers in the folk genre; the lyric song of the second movement is harmonized in the style of some of Grieg’s later folksong influences; and the finale contains dance rhythms reminiscent of the halling and springdans so typical of Norwegian lore. It brought back fond memories of a visit in Bergen Norway by this critic to the composer's simple but charming home in his fatherland, now a museum dedicated to its famed inhabitant. Sometimes referred to as musical comfort food, it was praised by none other than Tchaikovsky for its perfect simplicity. As performed at Symphony Hall by Andris and Andsnes, it showed how deserving a concerto can be, as judged by the audience's repeated standing ovations.

Soprano Genia Kuhmeier with the BSO
(photo: BSO)

Mahler's Fourth Symphony in G , the subject of the second half of the program, is the last of his trio of Wunderhorn symphonies, with text from the German folk poems Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Completed in 1901, it was first heard in Munich, then several other German cities, but poorly received in virtually all of them. Many felt it was too “sunlit”, transparent, and brief, thus un-Mahler-like. He dismissed critics' “banal misunderstandings”. (All ye critics take note). The composer himself felt his adagio was his best slow movement. The final movement is an expansion of an 1892 song Das himmlische leben (“Heavenly Life”) here featuring Austrian soloist soprano Genia Kuhmeier in her BSO debut. It's a work that features quirks such as no trombones or tubas, both beginning and ending with sleigh bells, demonstrating how transporting music can be. It was first performed in this country by the New York Symphony Society in 1904, while its first appearance on the schedule of the BSO was not until 1942. Suffice it to say that while it argues that no music on earth can rival that of heaven, and may lack the universal acceptance of his Second (“Resurrection”), this pointedly ends with the proclamation (amidst some strange images of heaven) “so that all may awake for joy”. And so it was, reflecting the ideal weather outside the confines of Symphony Hall.

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