A Bracing Move from Neoclassical to Classical

Stravinsky, Haydn: Alexandra Coku (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Matthew Polenzani (tenor), David Pittsinger (bass-baritone), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (conductor), Symphony Hall, Boston. 26.2.2013 (MSJ)

Stravinsky: Pulcinella (complete ballet score)
Haydn: Mass No. 10 in C, “Mass in Time of War”

There are two ways to effectively perform a masterpiece. One is to reinvent it based on scholarship or personal vision. The other is to work within the received tradition, reanimating the familiar with passion and insight. If the former demands ingenuity and brilliance, it is also arguably easier than the latter course, which—though far more common—has given the world many mediocre performances. Wearing the mantle of tradition is unforgiving. While the music-making may be comfortable to the audience, truly living up to the best of the tradition is a difficult task.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who will turn 80 this September, has worked within the broad traditions of mainstream music-making for well over half a century. But he demonstrated Tuesday evening that he has become an old sage, eschewing the thrill-seeking of innovation, but penetrating the substance of masterpieces by Stravinsky and Haydn to a depth that allowed soloists, the Boston Symphony, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to bring them both vitality and an “old master blend of sound.”

That said, this rendition of the complete score of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella was controversial in not falling near the center of the mainstream of tradition. Indeed, the work has a long history of being frantically rushed off its feet, dispatched at fast tempos suggesting brittle hilarity instead of genial joy. But Frühbeck de Burgos was having none of that. By allowing some room for expansion and the intricate terracing of dynamics, he encouraged the Boston players to dig deeply into the notes and textures, finding more power than most in the score’s shadowy corners.

While comfortably paced, well-sprung rhythms kept this autumnal approach from ever sounding heavy or lifeless. The vigorous numbers nonetheless had plenty of wit and energy. It makes one wonder if, in his youthful years guest conducting London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, the conductor was influenced by Otto Klemperer’s performances of the suite, to which it bore some resemblance. Most reminiscent of that past master was the comic “Vivo” movement, played with humor and vitality without degenerating into a scramble for notes. One important difference from Klemperer’s recording was evident, though: For all its stature, the Philharmonia of the 1960s cannot compare to the Boston Symphony of 2013 in terms of attractive playing. But significantly, this was not the bland, note-perfect noodling of so many modern performances. Frühbeck de Burgos made sure that the suave sound was shaped, phrased, shaded, and sung with the expressive acumen of a seasoned storyteller.

Of the soloists, lustrous mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was the star. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger—substituting for the ill Ildebrando d’Arcangelo—rivaled her, filling Symphony Hall with ample tone. Tenor Matthew Polenzani’s voice was tight in the Stravinsky, unfurling more for the Haydn.

The move from the neoclassical to classical was bracing—by no means as easy a shift as it might look on paper. Stravinsky’s rewrites of Pergolesi and colleagues make often sarcastic commentary through what is added or changed. Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli (“Mass in Time of War”) makes its impact not only through what is there, but what is not.

What isn’t there is a bombastic portrayal of life during wartime—in Haydn’s case, the Napoleonic Wars of the late 1700s. Rather, Haydn sought to provide listeners with vigorously upbeat music, expanding his well-developed symphonic writing style to scale heavenly heights. But at the same time, this intent often falters, and shadows pass over, reflecting both Haydn’s anxiety with the state of the world, and perhaps also the occasional mournful shade of the great Requiem left unfinished by Haydn’s young friend and colleague, Wolfgang Mozart, just a few years earlier.

Brittle, insensitive renditions of this work can make the upbeat parts hectoring, while either glossing over or overstating the shadows. Frühbeck de Burgos instead found the pulse running beneath the surface, using sweeping gestures as he sat in a swivel chair, in order to energize and shape the performers. John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus received much of the conductor’s attention, with dramatic shaping and crisp staccatos as the result. Such crisp delivery made the most of Symphony Hall’s exquisite acoustics, particularly when the conductor pushed the first part of the “Et resurrexit” in the Credo to a precipitous cliff, a diaphanous veil of sound ringing out afterward before the sombre shadow of the word “mortuorum” crept in softly. The threatening timpani taps in the “Agnus dei”—which give the work its German moniker “Paukenmesse”— were clear and imposing in the crescendos.

The earlier vocal soloists were joined by Alexandra Coku, who pushed hard dramatically, forcing some of her phrase endings toward squall. Cargill was again lovely, while Polenzani showed more flexibility than in the Stravinsky. Pittsinger was once more resplendent in the bass solos. The duets, trios, and quartets were fine, though a little more blend would have been welcome. The orchestral solos, though making no quarter for historically informed styles, were impressive, particularly the cello, evidently played by assistant principal Martha Babcock. The concertmaster also appeared to have been off for the evening, with associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova leading.

Mark Sebastian Jordan