Thursday, October 26, 2023

Bohemian Dances and Drama Open Long Beach Season

Soloist Andreas Boyde performing Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G minor with Eckart Preu and the
Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.


Long Beach Symphony, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach

A couple of short orchestral dances, followed by a big and unfamiliar concerto, and then three symphonic poems one after the other to wrap up the evening? Such a program might at first glance seem heterogeneous, even a bit incoherent, but as assembled by Long Beach Symphony Music Director Eckart Preu, the roster for the opening concert in the orchestra’s 2023-2024 Classical Season proved to be as engaging, insightfully constructed, and thrilling in execution as any patron could wish for.

The evening’s central European folk/ethnic credentials were established right from the start with two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. His fascination with Magyar gypsy-style music stemmed from being recital accompanist to the itinerant Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi (1828-1898) when Brahms was still in his teens (an artistic partnership—otherwise harmonious until they parted ways in 1853—marred by a vehement falling-out over interpretative details of that “gypsy music,” as Maestro Preu noted in his introductory remarks).

Brahms and Reményi (left).
In the years that followed, Brahms’ continuing interest in the idiom led him to variously collect/rework/ compose many “Hungarian” melodies, until in 1869 the first set of Ungarische Tänze, WoO1 appeared in print, in two “books” of five dances each.

Originally published as piano duets, the Hungarian Dances reappeared over the years in many arrangements from solo piano to full orchestra. Brahms himself orchestrated the first, third, and 10th of them, and it was with No. 1 in G minor that the concert began.

Preu and the orchestra immediately demonstrated complete rapport with the idiom, their no-holds-barred Allegro molto urgently driving the smoothly urbane contours of the opening melody, and then generous ritardandi in the central section giving the LBSO flutes plenty of space for their trilling bird-calls.

This was followed, not by either of the others Brahms orchestrated himself, but by No. 4 in F minor, in the 1933 orchestration by Paul Juon (himself a composer worth bending an ear to). This choice was clearly for maximum contrast, with its Poco sostenuto opening hugely soulful and expansive, and then a whirlwind swirl for the central Vivace.

Bedřich Smetana, c.1878.
In Bedřich Smetana’s Czech homeland, complete stand-alone concerts of his symphonic cycle Má vlast, JB. 1/112 (My Fatherland) continue to be relatively frequent. Elsewhere such performances are quite rare, and in my admittedly limited experience, hearing all six symphonic poems consecutively live has not added up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts—though the reiteration of the four-note motif representing the castle in the first of them (Vyšehrad) and then in the second (Vltava) and sixth (Blaník) adds a certain unifying factor.

To fill the second half of the concert, Maestro Preu made his own selection of three of the Má vlast symphonic poems. Though in some doubt initially as to the order in which to play them, his final chosen sequence of No. 2, Vltava (The Moldau) written in 1874, No. 3, Šárka, and No. 4, Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields)—both completed in 1875—could not have been improved upon.

“The Moldau” is by far the most familiar, due to the memorable and heart-lifting tune with which Smetana characterizes the river of the title. The LBSO players caught perfectly this vivid aural picture, from the 16th-note sextuplets on a single flute over violin and harp pizzicati that mark its source, through some 40 measures of those undulations gradually spreading through the orchestra, until the 1st violins sang out the melody.

Smetana himself described the Vltava’s course “through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. [It] swirls into the St John's Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Elbe”—and all were vividly characterized by the LBSO under Maestro Preu.

The Moldau flowing through Prague.
As succinct as Vltava is discursive, Šárka tells how the female warrior of the title springs a deadly trap on some male counterparts. The performance gave this all the stormy eloquence required, with a particularly baleful bassoon solo triggering the final slaughter. Only (for me) did a sense of diminishing returns begin to set in at From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, with its many pages of celebratory fanfaring and cymbal-crashing—though here executed with such panache and enthusiasm that the final climax elicited a comparably loud outburst of cheers and applause from the LBSO patrons.

Antonin Dvořák.
But the jewel at the heart of this immensely enjoyable and exuberant concert was the concerto. If ever there were a Society for the Restitution of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto, then undoubtedly its President and CEO would be Eckart Preu and the German pianist Andreas Boyde, whose pre-concert conversation about the work was particularly illuminating.

Look anywhere in commentaries about the Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33, B. 63 and the best you’ll likely find is damning with faint praise for this Cinderella work in Dvořák’s ouput, with particular obloquy for the piano writing. While Boyde acknowledged that the concerto is extremely difficult to play, his growing enthusiasm for its unique value and qualities that he had come to feel through performing it a number of times over the years was manifest in every moment of this account.

That he had worthy collaborators in Preu and the orchestra was demonstrated from the outset. The first statement of the main theme is confined to winds and lower strings, mezzo piano, but it is still marked Allegro agitato, and keen observation of passing accents ensured that all the drama inherent in the music was expressed to the full.

Andreas Boyde.
After 65 measures the piano’s initial entry is unobtrusive, and as the long first movement progressed the much-criticized character of the piece—as a concerto in which the piano part is essentially a hugely elaborate contributor to the overall orchestral texture rather than a virtuosic contrast with it—rapidly became apparent.

But in the face of this performance any such observation became an “any fool can see that” irrelevancy. Nowhere throughout the 20+ minutes of the first movement was the attention tempted to wonder, so integrated and eloquent was its unfolding, with orchestral writing revealed as expressive and characterful as anything in the five symphonies Dvořák had written up to that point in his career (but using forces smaller than any of them), and constantly elaborated, illuminated, and underpinned by the work of Boyde’s ultra-busy fingers.

Eckart Preu.
The Andante sostenuto opens with a horn solo that sounds as if it’s going to turn into the “Going Home” theme from the “New World” Symphony—but it doesn't, and played here with great sensitivity and attention to nuance above fabulously soft strings, the effect was balm-like after the lengthy and strenuous elaborations of the first movement.

The Allegro con fuoco finale is almost as long and elaborate, with pitiless demands on the soloist, but more than ever Boyde seemed to relish and revel in every challenge, maintaining momentum and crispness of attack, with the skipping main theme given an impish insouciance every time it came around.

If ever a neglected work deserved, and received, the best possible advocacy, this was it. Never boring for a moment throughout the 44 minutes of this performance, Dvořák’s Piano Concerto got as big an ovation as if it had been Tchaikovsky's First (see the final concert in this series next June...)


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, October 21, 2023, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Brahms and Rémenyi: Brahms-Institut an der Musikhochschule Lübeck; Smetana, The Moldau, Dvořák: Wikimedia Commons.

If you found this review to be useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.