Naughtons Sub for Jussens at BSO

Opera music


Christina and Michelle Naughton (photo by Aram Boghosian)

The memorable fall day of October 8e, the Boston Symphony Orchestra rightly offered a program easily described as “invigorating.” Music director Andris Nelsons has selected two works of Richard Strauss’s precocious maturity for the first half: the Masterful Symphonic Poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) from 1899, and the love scene from Strauss’ second opera (or Singgedicht “sung poem”) Feuersnot (Need for Fire) from 1901. Although they share the theme of redemption, the former show the artist in his most spiritual aspect while the latter are strictly concerned with physical love. The concert ended with the merry Concerto in E flat major for two pianos, K. 365, by Mozart, a composer much admired by Strauss whose own career has survived another half a century. Nelsons spontaneously addressed the audience, noting that they would have to bring friends who otherwise wouldn’t attend either of the two remaining concerts. I can only agree.

Strauss composed Feuersnot largely to take revenge on his hometown of Munich for his rejection of his first opera Guntram, and he had few qualms about impress the bourgeoisie although the Flemish legend on which it is based was so vulgar that its librettist, Ernst von Wolzogen, ultimately felt compelled to tone it down somewhat. A craftsman named Kunrad (representing Strauss himself) publicly humiliates the young girl Diemut, daughter of the mayor of Munich, by stealing a kiss from her. His revenge is to make him believe that she loves him and to persuade him to climb into a basket to be pulled into her room in secret. When he is halfway up, she literally leaves him hanging, exposed to the ridicule of the Munich populace. The furious Kunrad, who is an apprentice of the powerful wizard Reichhart (representing Richard Wagner, another composer abused by Munich), uses magic to put out all the fires in the city, curses the “Philistines” and informs them that only when Diemut returns his love will set them on fire again. The young girl realizes that the well-being of the city depends on her change of attitude and leads Kunrad inside. Although Wolzogen felt the need to clean up the original fable, Strauss in the purely orchestral love scene doesn’t feel so compelled. His music is seductive from the start and very quickly begins to rise in dynamics and tones. Nelsons and the orchestra did not neglect the few moments of rest, but they skillfully created the effect of a large, well-paced crescendo with an accelerando adding to the excitement. Strauss employed here multiple musical gestures (for example, whooping cough figures in horns, trumpets and trombones) signifying sexual arousal and liberation, which he would resort to in a number of later works. Using economical gestures, Nelsons built a climax of great excitement and power, as well as a majestically triumphant coda as erotic love prevails and fire and light are restored in Munich. Although Strauss may have owed some of his musical techniques to the work of Wagner Liebestod, this “redemption” was quite earthly (earthly?), with death and the hereafter completely removed from the equation.

It was a logical progression (albeit a 12-year regression in time) to the other work by the same composer, Tod und Verklärung. Strauss, 25, demonstrates an almost prodigious mastery of his craft in this work of sophisticated construction and emotionally moving imagery. Although in a larger view, the piece is a diptych depicting scenes before and after death (corresponding to the colossal work of Olivier Messiaen for organ Fight of death and life half a century later), Strauss clearly delineates four sections: the weakness of a dying old man; his anguish as he mounts a fierce final resistance to death; returning to calm as precious memories pass through his mind and he dies; and the achievement of the longed-for redemption and transfiguration. Here, too, BSO and Nelsons have excelled in creating vivid atmospheres. The muted strings at the opening represented irregular breathing with feathery pulsations, soon offset by heavenly harp arpeggios under sparkling flute, oboe and clarinet solos as the old man perhaps imagines life beyond. the death. The first section consisted of this continuous alternation between muffled suffering and glimpses of beauty. A resounding knock on the timpani ushered in the mighty struggle between life and death which is, not by chance, a test of the virtuosity of the players as well. Their control (and that of Nelsons) beautifully portrays the anguished but heroic resistance of the protagonist. The climax was no less intense than that of FeuersnotThe love scene from, but took on much more emotional weight due to the dire circumstances described. Rest returned, and perhaps acceptance, as man’s dearest memories flashed through his mind, provided he was not destined to fulfill his highest aspirations during his life. earthly life. As in the first section, Strauss distributes solos to numerous instruments, all of which the players rendered beautiful and evocative. After Death seemingly won the day, a slow ascent began from the bass registers, progressing smoothly and fascinatingly until it culminated in the magnificent theme of Transfiguration, heard earlier but did not. reaching its full meaning only here. The denouement plunged us into the bliss of a soul likely realizing its earthly aspirations in a blessed hereafter. After the entire orchestra bow, Nelsons rightly took considerable time to give individual salutes to all the solo players. I was happy to see that these performances are being recorded for future release, and look forward to hearing the Strauss programs from the orchestra in the spring.

Mozart’s concerto for two pianos, in which twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton made their debut in place of the failed Dutch brothers Jussen, completed the concert. Friendly collaboration between siblings was, of course, what Mozart had in mind when he composed the concerto for himself and his older sister Nannerl.

With a playful air and smiling carefree attitude, the sisters walked in and bowed rather endearingly in disunity. Artistically, however, they approach the concerto with such unanimity and a dovetail phrasing so fluid that a listener, closing their eyes, might well conjure up a single player – with perhaps a few extra fingers! Their musical conversation exchanged between equals, with context and the occasional interjections provided by the orchestra, carefully guided by Nelsons. The increasing jubilation of the cadence of the pianos’ first movement provided a delectable climax. The more restful tempo of the second movement allowed for more dynamic variety in the phrases and a greater range of articulation. A constant lucidity and beauty characterized the tone of the sisters. In the final movement, Nelsons and the BSO provided a casual introduction with a sly and agogical emphasis on the “surprise” chord shortly before the pianos entered. The Naughtons had a great time, playing with wit and good humor. In the development’s minor shift, the triplet accompaniment was one of the very few times the texture became “foam” rather than transparent. This musical joke “on a lighter subject” nevertheless retained the charm and grace of the previous movements. The scintillating fingering became something more in their hands – a showcase of Mozart’s inventiveness – before the work ended exuberantly.

The Naughtons received a prolonged standing ovation which led to an encore, a four-handed (piano) transcription of Bernstein’s Overture to Candid, an exhibition piece that the sisters performed thoroughly. Frequent, somewhat tired register changes, but given the nature of four-handed transcription, were probably inevitable. Bernstein’s musical witticisms showed more bite here than Mozart’s, but were no less pleasurable. The duo imparted warmth and elegance to the sustained center air, and they impressively launched the cannon and stretta before their final ‘punch’ cadence left the audience chuckling. The Naughton sisters have already built a very impressive resume; kudos to the Nelson and the BSO for getting their services in what must have been a short timeframe.

Geoffrey Wieting holds a BA in Organ and Latin from Oberlin College and an MA in Collaborative Piano from the New England Conservatory. He is an independent organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the board of directors of the Old West Organ Society.