Exploring greatness with Boulez, Stravinsky and Saint-Saëns in Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Various: Leila Josefowicz (violin), Todd Wilson (organ), Cleveland Orchestra / Thierry Fischer (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 7.10.2022. (MSJ)

Thierry Fischer

Stravinsky – Violin Concerto in D major
Saint-Saëns – Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.78, ‘Organ’

What is greatness? It is a nagging question in the arts as opinions and reputations rise and fall. And it can be fascinating when an intriguing program puts together composers not normally associated with one another, as Thierry Fischer did in this Cleveland Orchestra concert. At the very least, the late Pierre Boulez and the long-gone Charles Camille Saint-Saëns would be mortified to find themselves sharing a program. Stravinsky would likely have had a wry smile at their expense.

Pierre Boulez started with the noble aspiration to root out lazy and decadent aspects of mid-twentieth-century European music, which he perceived as being hopelessly tangled up with the social diseases of fascism and Naziism. Unfortunately, the usurper became a doctrinaire dictator, ridiculing any composers who didn’t toe the twelve-tone line as developed from Webern and, ultimately, Schoenberg. In the end, Boulez’s fondness for absolutes of pure music divorced from imagery, story or association painted him into a creative corner. His early Notations for piano were compact abstractions. Returning to them throughout his career, he began expanding some of the pieces into orchestral versions that ranged quite a bit further from the original stated esthetic.

Boulez was a great agitator with occasional calculated moments of outrageousness, such as when he proposed burning down the world’s opera houses, or blasted Schoenberg in the infamous obituary, ‘Schoenberg Is Dead’. He was a lively polemicist, a conductor with x-ray ears and – as I recall from numerous pre-concert talks in Cleveland over his years as principal guest conductor – an utterly charming raconteur.

But was Boulez the great composer he presented himself to be? Even after all his years of dedicated work in his IRCAM studio in Paris, I think the inescapable answer is no, not really. Was he a fine and important composer whose music should still be heard? Yes. Yet for all his grandstanding about leading music into the future, Boulez’s own music is both highly derivative and very much of its time, which means that it sounds today like a relic of the mid-twentieth century. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is time to put Boulez in the context of music history without interference from the outspoken man himself.

If the piano Notations are a distinctive voice, it is still one deriving from Webern via Olivier Messiaen, one of Boulez’s teachers. Interestingly, the orchestral Notations expand, sometimes exponentially, from the originals, but in the process conjure up even more recollections of Messiaen and, additionally, Stravinsky. They make for absorbing listening, especially when played by an ensemble like the Cleveland Orchestra that can bring the challenging writing to life. While lesser serialists all too often devolved into noisy abstraction, Boulez successfully pulls off the balancing act of conjuring up a fascinating vision while avoiding any implicit story or program. Was he able to adhere to the strictest rules of serialism in doing so? Not at all, but who cares when the final result is real music?

And it was in this performance. Fischer led with complete assurance, communicating his intentions with simple, clear gestures that I think would have pleased Boulez. He balanced textures so that the composer’s complex lines shone out, while honoring the elegance of its inspiration. I wouldn’t have minded for the second movement (‘Hiératique: Lent’, originally movement VII of the piano work) to be even slower, though Fischer’s thinking might well be that if taken too slowly, it would sound even more redolent of Messiaen than it already does. The third movement called to mind Stravinsky in its rhythmicality, and the fifth and final movement exploded in a burst of orchestral color that drew a warm response from the audience and brought Fischer back to the stage for a second bow.

Moving from the Boulez into Stravinsky was easy enough, though for much of his career the Russian composer resisted taking on serialism. In the end, he did, but the Violin Concerto dates from the 1930s, well before Stravinsky’s ‘conversion’. Unlike Walton’s concerto from the same period (which we heard last season), Stravinsky rejects any quasi-Hollywood glamour and instead writes with a sardonic humor closer to Kurt Weill or even early Shostakovich. Just a few bars into the concerto, I suddenly became aware of what was missing from the Boulez score because of his insistence on idealistic purity: a sense of humor.

Humor needs context, and Stravinsky was a master of playing his music against the context he established. In the case of this score, the initial context is close to the high spirits of the crowd scenes in Petrushka, or the playful Scherzo à la Russe. This allows the soloist to alternately play along with the high spirits or, at times, to cut against the general atmosphere. Without doubt, it would have been delightful hearing this music played by the planned soloist Vilde Frang, but she was forced to cancel due to travel difficulties.

Leila Josefowicz

Luckily for us, we received a replacement soloist of the highest caliber in Leila Josefowicz, who all but set the stage on fire in her most recent appearance in Cleveland in John Adams’ Scheherazade 2.0. Even if she were only an average performer, I would have the highest respect for her avowed refusal to tour around playing the same three or four concertos over and over again. Rather, she has dedicated herself to playing less-familiar works, including lots of music by living composers. Josefowicz clearly knew the Stravinsky well and tore into it with the same zeal she used for the Adams work. She also happens to have the technique that allows her dares and gambles to work, bringing life to a work that doesn’t always pop in performance. From the wry humor of the first movement to the lyricism of the second to the darker song of the third and, finally, to the fireworks of the closing, Josefowicz was electrifying, and Fischer and the orchestra matched her step for step.

From either of the two composers in the first half of the concert to Saint-Saëns seems a leap, but it again conjures the question about greatness. When one critic boasted that Saint-Saëns was ‘a French Beethoven’ after the premiere of his Third Symphony, the composer demurred, rejecting the hyperbole. Yet one has to wonder, what else was he aiming for in this piece’s grand gestures?

Thierry Fischer certainly took the customary route through the piece, with broad, majestic speeds and bright colors, and with plenty of room for Todd Wilson’s grand contributions on the hall’s wonderful pipe organ. Fischer only pushed the tempo when accelerating into the finale’s coda, bringing it to a satisfying-enough end. That standard approach seems to validate an attempt to be epic and serious by Saint-Saëns. And pointing out that the main theme of the first movement (which returns throughout the work) is derived from the ‘Dies irae’ plainchant only seems to verify that seriousness.

But you know what? After years of listening, I am prepared to say that I don’t buy it, at least not directly. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying I dislike the piece. I love it. But I love what it really is, not what it is so often mistaken to be. Dapper and witty Saint-Saëns wrote a big piece here, but is it really the epic it pretends to be? I don’t think so. I think that perhaps what it really is, is a satire of the grand, epic symphonies of the high Romantic era. Fischer, like almost every other conductor who has tried the piece, attempts to pace the first movement slowly enough to make the jittery repeated notes precise, which is impossible, even for a fine-precision orchestra like Cleveland. Rather, I think Saint-Saëns was poking fun at the scrubbing passages in Schubert, Schumann and other composers. Playing it quicker and letting the notes fall where they may would be closer to the spirit of Saint-Saëns.

The ‘Dies irae’ is a red herring, a high-portent signal that never plays out. Likewise, the quasi-religious stance of the opening of the slow movement only reveals its true, sensual nature near the end of the movement. The hijinks of the scherzo need to go a daredevil speed, and the finale should start over the top and proceed upward from there. Instead of being a true dark-to-light journey, it is a parody of one that maybe, just maybe, secretly, almost longs to be the real thing.

Historical context proves the humor which, surprisingly enough, links the Saint-Saëns to its Stravinsky program-mate. Saint-Saëns’ own reactionary behavior as a conservative fighting against the new directions that music wanted to take ironically connects him to his other program mate, Boulez. In the end, Boulez was a fine though limited composer. Saint-Saëns was better. And Stravinsky was the best of the three, aware of his own context and limitations and turning them into virtues. These fine performances were a splendid opportunity to find new connections and understandings.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

1 thought on “Exploring greatness with Boulez, Stravinsky and Saint-Saëns in Cleveland”

  1. I hadn’t heard the Saint-Saëns symphony in almost 60 years If the Good Lord grants me another 60 years – on top of my present 77 – I may hear it again!

    Mr. Jordan’s reflections on Pierre Boulez are thoughtful and not unfair. But a lesser composer than Saint-Saëns?? I detect a certain amount of “postmodern” consideration in this judgement, crediting the latter composer with far too much in the way of self-awareness, irony, and satirical intent. The last few minutes of the symphony are bombastic to a point that would make Shostakovich blush. And exactly what IS the point of the organ?


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