This year’s Tanglewood season is only six weeks long, so we should make sure to enjoy this last weekend coming up. The Saturday, Aug. 14, and Sunday, Aug. 15 concerts offer us a wealth of contrasts.
Friday’s concert is made up of:
- A suite derived from the music of an opera composed just five years ago.
- A great French piano concerto influenced by the music of jazz.
- One of the most remarkable orchestral pieces by an English composer of the last century. The suite is based on the music for the opera Figaro Gets a Divorce by the Russian-English composer Elena Langer. The opera was designed as a modern sequel to The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, and it is both funny and touching. The music achieves the same balance.
Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G was written in the early 1930s and is strongly influenced by the rhythms and harmonies of jazz. The justly famous second movement is one of the most dreamy and languid slow movements ever composed, with its delicate and captivating pull between the right-hand meter of two beats, and the left hand in three. The outer movements combine the typical French musical quality of transparency with the offbeat accents and rhythmic drive of big-band jazz.
The concert, led by Anna Rakitina, assistant conductor of the BSO since 2019, ends with the great orchestral work of Edward Elgar, The Enigma Variations. When this work was first performed in 1899, two things became immediately apparent. First, that Edward Elgar, a provincial violinist, conductor, organist, part-time composer and music teacher, had suddenly become England’s finest composer at the age of 42; and second, that English orchestral music could rival the output of continental Europe and still retain its strong individuality.
There are two enigmas in the Enigma. The first is still unsolved: Elgar said that the opening theme on which the variations are based was written as a counterpoint to another theme, a “dark saying,” whose identity he did not reveal. (Naturally, no musicologist can resist this challenge: my own candidate is Purcell’s Chacony for strings, also in G minor.)
The second (multiple) enigma was the identity of the referents of the fourteen variations, which Elgar, as a kind of inside joke, labeled only with initials, first names, or asterisks. Years later the composer revealed these meanings when a set of piano rolls of the work was produced.
Sunday’s concert, by contrast, features the music of only one composer: Brahms – a composer regarded as old-fashioned during his lifetime, who had to wait for a fellow composer in the twentieth century to appreciate his originality and modernity (Arnold Schoenberg, in an essay entitled Brahms the Progressive.)
The first work is the weighty and accomplished Violin Concerto (1878), one of the four great German concertos for that instrument written in the nineteenth century. The composer was helped in the idiomatic violin writing by the contemporary performer Joseph Joachim, though Brahms was simultaneously looking to rival Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin from 1806.
The second (and final) work on the program is the last of Brahms’s four symphonies, also a powerful and serious creation, tightly woven despite its breadth, and presenting in the last movement a massive set of variations on a choral theme by Bach, both to pay tribute to that master of 150 years earlier and to display his own dazzling inventiveness and architectural ability. For at the end of his last symphony Brahms created a lengthy movement for a large orchestra that is sectionalized into 30 variations and yet holds together tightly throughout as an impressive and overwhelming whole.
’Til next summer, BSO. Thanks for the superb performances and — after a long and painful year — thanks for taking us back to the experience of transcendence that great music, played live, can provide.