BSO's "Beethoven/Tchaikovsky": Two Fifths

Marcelo Lehninger conducting the BSO
(photo: Hilary Scott)

Beethoven's Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus, Opus 43 made for a fine if relatively slight curtain raiser (only five minutes in length) for the Boston Symphony's latest program. First performed in Vienna in 1801, it was introduced to Tanglewood audiences in 1958 (and again, most recently, in 2014). It was for the youthful composer his first mature score for theatrical use, namely to support a ballet. The brevity of the piece about the fable of Prometheus and two statues brought to life makes for an uncharacteristic comparatively light composition for Beethoven, but served to set the mood for this BSO concert, under the baton of Marcelo Lehninger, former BSO Assistant Conductor, who last led the BSO in 2014.

There followed a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.5 in E-Flat, Opus 73, a substantially more impressive work (clocking in at forty-two minutes), featuring Pianist Javier Perianes, who last played with the BSO in 2016. Aptly described in the program notes as “heaven-storming”, it was Beethoven's final concerto, first heard in 1811, as part of what is generally acknowledged as the “heroic period”. Its initial BSO performance was in 1911 and at Tanglewood in 1947. It was seen by the composer himself as a real affirmation while in the midst of “terrible times” (Austria being engaged in one of several consecutive wars with France). Known in English-speaking countries as the “Emperor” (for reasons that are totally unclear) it is a deservedly beloved work that includes amongst its movements the longest he ever wrote. The audience at the matinee performance was nothing short of ecstatic for Lehninger, Perianes (who earned his encore) and the orchestra itself.

Maestro Marcelo Lehninger & Pianist Javier Perianes with the BSO
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The second half of the program consisted of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5 in E Minor Opus 64, another rousing piece at forty-seven minutes with its powerful lyrical theme of the Fates that unites all four of its movements. His Fourth had been his symphony of triumph over fate, an imitation of Beethoven’s Fifth. As noted in this concert's program, for Tchaikovsky’s own Fifth Symphony, we have an outlining for the scenario for the first movement: “Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro. Murmurs of doubt, complaints, reproaches against XXX. Shall I throw myself in the embraces of faith? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out.” The composer's reference to “XXX” is generally considered most likely an allusion to his homosexuality, which terrified him as a possible cause of scandal; others attribute this to his gambling addiction. Though he detested it when writers interpreted his musical processes too literally, the theme with which the clarinets (beautifully played and justly singled out for applause), in their lowest register, begin the symphony has a function other than its musical one: it reappears as a catastrophic interruption of the second movement’s love song, with the languid dance of the waltz, and in its majestic E major triumph. Tchaikovsky’s terrific gift of melody is shown in his delight in what he calls “strong effects” and his skill at bringing them off, with quite remarkable effect yet with great economy. After his return from a journey to Prague (where the experience of conducting the Fifth produced the most depression in him) he quickly began work on The Sleeping Beauty, and not long after that, his finest operatic score, The Queen of Spades. But once again Lehninger (conducting this time from memory) proved the Fifth Symphony itself worthy of the almost hysterical climaxes it provides. Both central movements were delights in quite different ways, and the audience for both gave enthusiastic approval. It was the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its finest.

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