Leon Botstein, the music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra for the past twenty years, has emphasized thematic programming in constructing the orchestra’s concert schedule. There is always a thematic link of some sort between the pieces presented in a multi-piece program, and most of the orchestra’s annual Vanguard Series in New York City consists of such programs. Last night at Carnegie Hall, the theme was “What Makes a Masterpiece.” Botstein offered performances of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 13, Heinrich von Herzogenberg’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 50 (claimed to be the U.S. premiere), and Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 98. In his introduction to the concert, Botstein wrote that “tonight’s concert was designed to challenge received wisdom about the merits of musical works, and the criteria by which we judge music.” Botstein argues, in effect, that history can be unfair and mistaken, and that this concert was intended to prove the point.
Brahms’s 4th Symphony is performed regularly by all major symphony orchestras as an acknowledged masterpiece in the core of the standard repertory, and has received hundreds of recordings. Dvorak’s 4th Symphony, by comparison, is seldom performed, is regarded as an “early” work that is not quite ready for prime time, and has been recorded only in the context of recordings of the complete cycle of his nine symphonies, of which one current on-line catalogue suggests there are just shy of a dozen. Von Herzogenberg’s first of two symphonies, never previously played in America and rarely exhumed in Europe, enjoys a single recording by a second-rank central European radio orchestra on a record label that specializes in reviving obscurities. These three works were composed within a few years of each other, and share the idiom of central European Romanticism.
Botstein asserts that all three are worth hearing, and I agree, but I think the judgment of history on their relative merits is fair, and last night’s performances bore this out.
Dvorak’s 4th, composed in 1874 and revised for a possible performance in 1887-88, was not performed during the composer’s lifetime, languishing among his unpublished manuscripts until it finally received its premiere in Prague in 1982. Herzogenberg’s symphony was composed in 1885, promptly published, presumably performed (the program notes were ambiguous on this point), and quickly fell into obscurity as a poor copy of Brahms. Brahms’s 4th, a work of his full maturity (1884-85) that took some time to attain popularity, was recognized as an important symphonic statement by a major composer almost immediately.
Each of the symphonies is in four movements. Each begins with a large movement structured in some version of classic sonata form. Each continues with a slower, song-form movement, followed by a scherzo, and each concludes with a faster-paced movement intended to end with a “major statement.”
Dvorak’s symphony struck me as worth hearing, but not very often, and only one movement – the scherzo – stood out as really memorable. Indeed, the performance quickly brought to mind the only other time I’ve heard it performed at a symphony concert, back in the 1980s, I believe, when James Conlon selected it as the major work for his New York Philharmonic debut. I even recalled the surprised delight with which I heard the striding woodwind theme in that third movement that sounds like it could have come out of a middle-period Verdi opera. There are other felicities in this score. I thought the second theme in the first movement was absolutely gorgeous, and much of the orchestration already bore the distinctive sound of the Dvorak orchestra that really reached fruition in the 7th Symphony (especially the use of woodwinds). But as the orchestra surged past the exposition of themes in the opening movement and headed into the development section, it seemed to me that Dvorak did not quite know what to do with his themes, how to write a development that would retain the listener’s interest and set things up for the recapitulation. The second movement began with promise, but again I found that he didn’t quite know how to take those potentially interesting themes and develop them in an interesting way. The finale struck me as unduly repetitive, to the point that the closing pages sounded like a spoof of an overblown romantic symphony.
I have less to say about von Herzogenberg’s symphony. I agree with Botstein that it is a solid work that could stand an occasional airing and doesn’t deserve total obscurity. It certain illustrates the impact that Brahms had on the thinking of central European composers. The only movement that struck me as particularly successful, however, was the second movement, whose beautiful themes and orchestration sustain interest where the other movements lost my interest due to the bland themes and unimaginative instrumentation.
After hearing these works, the Brahms symphony seemed even greater by comparison. I heard Kurt Masur conduct the New York Philharmonic in this symphony earlier this season, and the comparison is a bit hard on the ASO, not least because that large Philharmonic string section makes the smaller ASO section sound a bit threadbare by comparison. The ASO had 12 first violins, 11 seconds, 8 violas and cellos, and 6 basses. I don’t remember the precise count from last fall’s concert, but in a work like this the Philharmonic would normally have at least 14 firsts and proportionately larger sections down the line. Gorgeously rich string sound, characteristic of the Philharmonic, was missing and very much missed last night in all three pieces.
Indeed, the ASO last night had about 75 players on the stage, a size intermediate between a chamber orchestra and a major symphony orchestra, but probably comparable in size to the Meiningen Court Orchestra that premiered the Brahms in 1885 with the composer on the podium. An orchestra of this size can make a splendid thing of the Brahms, and the spirit was there last night, as it was in the other two works, but the difference between a major orchestra with a big budget and a part-time orchestra like the ASO is significant. The strings sounded a little scrappy at times in fast passages, and a little scrawny in playing some of the big lyrical lines, the wind soloists were good without being spectacular (and the piccolo player was a bit over-the-top in the Brahms scherzo, overly dominating the woodwind sound at several points, while the triangle player was too reticent), and the brass lacked some of the technical finish that one hears from the Philharmonic. On the other hand, how likely is it that one will ever hear the New York Philharmonic playing Herzogenberg? And has it ever played the Dvorak 4th since that Conlon appearance decades ago?
This is the great merit of the ASO, despite any technical shortcomings. It gives us a chance to hear live performances of music that has fallen from view (or perhaps never even surfaced!), and lets us think about the valuable question that Botstein posed: Why are some pieces ubiquitous and others not? My answer, which may be too simplistic, is that Brahms was a musical genius of the first rank, Dvorak a musical genius of lesser rank, and Herzogenberg was competent but not a musical genius. Competence can get you only so far without inspiration. Dvorak wrote nine symphonies; a few of them are played regularly, but some of them are not, and for good reason. Brahms wrote four symphonies, each a supreme masterpiece, each played with regularity (although conductors are less likely to favor the 3rd because it is the most difficult to “bring off” and doesn’t end with the kind of rousing finish that whips up the applause of the audience.)
Last night, there was applause after each movement of each piece. My regular concert-going companion found this disturbing, arguing that it was an intrusion into the continuity of pieces that were designed as multi-movement works. I couldn’t agree with him. During the nineteenth century, applause after movements was customary, and most composers would have been quite disappointed by its absence. (Indeed, in the 1790s, when Joseph Haydn’s late symphonies received their London premieres, contemporary press accounts mention that at times applause after a movement was so vociferous that the movement would be encored before proceeding to the next!). The idea of dead silence after a first movement of a symphony, which became customary by the mid-20th century, is totally unnatural if the first movement – as many do – ends in a blaze of glory with emphatic loud chords from the full orchestra. Silence at the end of the first movement of Brahms’s 4th is emotionally inappropriate, in my view. That ending calls out for an emotional release of approval from the audience. And if the second movement is gorgeous – as it truly is—the audience’s appreciation expressed in applause is totally appropriate. Beethoven, for one, knew how to prevent applause if he didn’t want it to break things up: just link movements, as he did with the last two in the 5th, the last three in the 6th, or the last two in the 5th Piano Concerto, or direct the conductor to start the next movement virtually without a break, as he does in the 4th Piano Concerto. Otherwise, applause should be welcomed, as it was before historicism and scholasticism so pervaded the symphony concert experience that novices feared to go because they are afraid of embarrassing themselves by applauding at the wrong time. . .