WASHINGTON, October 2, 2018. National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) Music Director Gianandrea Noseda opened the orchestra’s regular series concert season this weekend past with an intriguing, thematic program of music based on the visual arts. The program included something relatively unknown – Respighi’s “Trittico Botticelliano,” a work that’s new for the NSO; something better known – Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem “Isle of the Dead;” and one of the classical music genre’s most enduring hits – Maurice Ravel’s brilliantly colorful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
Increasingly occupied with editorial duties here at CDN, I didn’t have much of a chance to review DC-area concerts, operas and plays last season. So I resolved to do the best I can this year to get back on the road for the 2018-2019 season. And what better way to do so than to revisit the NSO a year after their new music director took the helm? And what better payoff than the orchestra’s interesting, tasteful and thoughtful musical look at the visual arts via the musical idiosyncrasies of three very different 20thcentury composers?
NSO, Maestro Noseda guide us to Rachmaninoff’s gloomy “Isle of the Dead”
The concert opened with a richly complex performance of one of Rachmaninoff’s lesser-performed works, his tone poem “Isle of the Dead.” This is a melancholy and, at times, a gloomy impression of the vision presented in Arnold Böcklin’s enigmatic, eponymous painting. Although the artist re-imagined this painting’s central scene in several different versions, Rachmaninoff was actually inspired by another artist’s black and white drawing of one of them.
In any event, the painting’s scenario depicts a strikingly small, craggy and isolated island in the middle of a vast and nameless body of water. Tall and jagged mountains form the backdrop, enclosing a dark central forest. It’s left to our imagination where the spirits – or their earthly remains will dwell forever. Approaching the island is a small boat, perhaps piloted by that ancient ferryman Charon.
The painting likely tells different stories to different viewers. Something in its overwhelming loneliness must have inspired Rachmaninoff’s deep and seemingly permanent melancholia. The result is this tone poem, within which the composer entombs strains from the ancient Christian hymn of the dead, the “Dies Irae.” It’s a refrain that finds its way into other Rachmaninoff compositions as well.
There are moments of high drama in this piece, built up in the composer’s signature manner wherein he gradually stacks an increasing number of musical choirs one on top of another, creating thick, always tonal but often dissonant outcries – possibly the laments of the dead. In fact, this work is nothing less than a meditation on death, its loneliness and its permanence – something each version of Böcklin’s impression visually conveys.
Under Maestro Noseda’s baton, the instrumental choirs remained marvelously distinct in places where the sound could have gone muddy, creating a meditation on death that marked a distinctly different way to open the new season.
But perhaps that was the plan. Although a portion of the Ravel-Mussorgsky epic does devote a few scenes to death and the dead, both “Pictures” and the second work on the evening’s program express generally brighter outlooks on life, with increasingly brighter bursts of sunlight and romance.
A brighter trip into Renaissance art and music
Respighi’s “Trittico Botticelliano,” consists of three set pieces, each based on well-known works by Botticelli.
Respighi is best known, at least in this country, as the composer of a famous “Roman Trilogy,” namely “The Fountains of Rome,” “The Pines of Rome,” and the more bombastic (and lesser known) “Roman Festivals.” All three pieces are splashy, tuneful and robustly romantic, with each meant to conjure up visions of the greatness of ancient Rome.
But there is also a lesser-known Respighi, the musicologically minded scholar and historian whose smaller compositions resurrect past history. While often echoing ancient musical motifs, these compositions retain distinctly 20thcentury instrumentation and color.
And that’s where what English speakers might call “The Botticelli Trilogy” fits in. In this charming composition for a reduced orchestra, Respighi takes the audience back to the Renaissance era where Botticelli flourished.
Spring, the Nativity and Venus in one oddly unified vision
The work opens with a quiet, rustic homage to spring, courtesy of the composer’s response to Botticelli’s painting depicting that season. Ancient dance rhythms and occasional bird songs – something the composer also visited prominently in “Pines of Rome” – dominate this quiet, evocative opening impression.
Spring turns toward an Italian-flavored vision of the Nativity as portrayed in Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi.” Here, a well known ancient church song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Bits and pieces of this traditional Advent antiphon are sprinkled throughout this movement, evoking the traditional Christian anticipation of the birth of Christ.
The finale, based on Botticelli’s widely-known and admired “Birth of Venus” (or, as some wags would have it, “Venus on the Half-shell”) flips from the religious to the secular with music that echoes the brightness and sensuality of the Roman goddess of love. Respighi colors his final piece with the whirling breeze and splashing waves so vividly depicted in the painting, bringing a sunny, delightful close to the composer’s reflection on Renaissance Italy and its great influence on bringing the visual arts into a new and more dramatic era, where man, “the measure of all things,” had the potential to evolve into at least a demi-god himself.
The NSO shifted down from the denseness and the power of the Rachmaninoff for this work, bringing a lightness of being and a more gossamer texture to the Respighi. It served as a most delightful and enjoyable interval between the two much more ambitious works on the evening’s program.
“Pictures at an Exhibition”: Secret origins
Maestro Noseda and the orchestra closed the evening with one of the most enduring “chestnuts” in the contemporary orchestral repertoire, the Ravel-Mussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Actually, back in the day, programs customarily listed the piece as the Mussorgsky-Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition.” I explore this interesting change a bit more below.
After all, this weirdly, compellingly creative work actually started out as a complex, difficult-to-play piano composition penned by this brilliant but always disorganized (and usually drunk) Russian genius to commemorate the death of his architect-artist friend, Viktor Hartmann. Hartmann had died suddenly at the still-youthful age of 39 from an aneurysm. Subsequently, the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts mounted a large exhibition of some 400 of his paintings, drawings and sketches early in 1874.
It was this exhibition that Mussorgsky wandered through that year, and it inspired him to compose this now-famous work. It depicts the composer as he wanders through the exhibit with a modest but often halting gate – depicted in “Pictures” as the opening “Promenade” theme. Variations on this theme appear again and again as intervals separating some of the pictures depicted in this eclectic piece.
Scholars and musicologists pooh-pooh the quality of Hartmann’s art. Yet it’s hard to say how good or how bad he was as an artist. (He seems to have made most of his living as an architect.) That’s because nearly all the works from the 1874 exhibit have been lost. As for the few that remain… well, they’re not Botticelli.
However, we must be grateful to Hartmann, because whatever Mussorgsky saw inspired him to create a work that’s unique in the annals of piano music.
The piano version of “Pictures”
But the piano “Pictures” is hard to play, at least for non-professionals. I know, because I have attempted in the past to play this strange and wonderful composition, but with limited success, alas.
For those interested in the original, however, an epic, monaural recording made during a live 1958 recital in Sofia, Bulgaria by the late, great Russian pianist Sviatislav Richter (1915-1997). It’s a brisk, energetic performance, although the original mono recording is marred a bit by a fair amount of coughing from the audience. A flu epidemic was reportedly racing through Sofia at the time.
The recording has been re-mastered at least once – presumably editing out much of the coughing and making it more “stereophonic” and it’s still available. That’s a tribute to Richter’s art, and a valuable touchstone for what “Pictures” sounds like, absent orchestral color.
Ravel: How a master of color orchestrates a work for solo piano
And speaking of orchestral color… While several conductor-composers have created orchestral versions of “Pictures,” it’s the Ravel orchestration that’s become a popular audience favorite. He was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to undertake this task, which he accomplished in 1922. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mussorgsky’s difficult but intriguing piano work never got a great deal of traction in the recital hall. But Ravel’s orchestration transformed the work into one of the most famous of all Russian compositions, at least in the West. The French composer has never displayed his talent as an orchestral colorist more brilliantly. His highly original instrumental touches emphasize his sheer genius.
Among them: Choosing the saxophone to sing the troubadour’s song in the second picture, “The Old Castle;” selecting the solo tuba to carry the main melody in the fourth picture, “Bydło” (“The Polish Oxcart”); the hilariously tinkly and increasingly frantic percussion in “The Ballet of the Un-hatched Chicks,” Picture 5; and the massed, unaccompanied brass choirs carrying “The Catacombs” (No. 8) and key portions of “The Great Gate of Kiev” (the finale). Tubular bells, bass drum and tubular chimes help bring the finale to a sweeping, dramatic conclusion.
Upon hearing this piece, it’s easy to see why some orchestras are now giving Ravel pride of place in the compositional credits. Mussorgsky’s piano work is a wondrously original work for that instrument. But it’s difficult to argue that it would have achieved its current level of popularity in that format. It was Ravel who accomplished that minor miracle.
Maestro Noseda conducts a memorable performance of “Pictures”
Indeed, the very robustness of Ravel’s realization of “Pictures” is probably the very factor – aside from its connection with art – that inspired Maestro Noseda and the NSO to wrap up this season’s opening concert with this work. And fortunately, they did not disappoint their audience.
The color, the subtlety, and the superb playing by several of the orchestra’s first chair members made this performance of “Pictures” surprisingly memorable, particularly for this listener, who’s heard it countless times both live and in recordings. Plenty of credit goes to the members of the NSO, of course. But this performance also gave this writer an excellent opportunity to observe how Gianandrea Noseda directed his players.
Maestro Noseda is very active on the podium and unusually expressive in an age where “expressiveness” has become somewhat unfashionable. That said, however, in his expressiveness, the downbeats, the nuances as expressed by this conductor seemed to me to be unusually clear and easy to follow – a real must in conducting the kind of augmented orchestral forces required to perform this version of “Pictures” well.
The art of conducting
The more clearly a conductor expresses his or her wishes, and the more easily understood his layered suggestions, the easier it is for an ensemble to realize his vision and the more disciplined their playing becomes. There was also a distinct and welcome lack of the occasional sloppiness that had characterized some of the performances conducted by Maestro Noseda’s two immediate predecessors.
Should this level of excellence become a regular feature of the NSO’s sound and vitality, this orchestra and its fine players may at last achieve greater recognition in the small, highly competitive world of top-rated symphony orchestras around the world.
Rating: ***½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)
—Headline image: Böcklin, “Isle of the Dead,” public domain image of original 19th C painting via Wikipedia entry.