At an evening at the Goethe Institut co-sponsored by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, two of Schoenberg’s children, Lawrence Schoenberg and Nuria Schoenberg Nono (widow of the radical Italian composer Luigi Nono), offered a loving, humanizing portrait of their father. Lawrence mentioned that one orchestra refused to use his father’s name advertising a concert that included his famous orchestration of Brahms’s G-minor Piano Quartet for fear it would hurt attendance. BSO maestro James Levine hopes to remove this stigma with his year-long series of Beethoven-and-Schoenberg programs. An “all-Schoenberg” evening — three works from three different periods (probably the first time an entire BSO concert has been devoted to multiple works of Schoenberg) — had one of the BSO’s smallest audiences. Even the following week’s evening-length Gurrelieder, that anomalous, gorgeous, heroic quasi song cycle, with a starry cast, had some vacant seats. But those who came seemed to enjoy even the “hard” parts, Schoenberg’s earliest masterpiece of free tonality (Lawrence said his father hated the term “atonality”), Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909), and his earliest 12-tone-system masterpiece, Variations for Orchestra (1928).
According to Michael Steinberg’s note, Schoenberg wrote to Richard Strauss explaining that the Five Pieces are about “sonority and atmosphere . . . no architecture, no structure. Only a kaleidoscopic changing of colors, rhythms, and moods.” Like soundtracks for five surrealistic films, these brief tone poems are called “Premonitions,” “The Past,” “Summer Morning by a Lake (Colors),” “Peripeteia” (the Greek word for a sudden reversal), and “The Obbligato Recitative.” Levine led the piece at his first BSO subscription concert as music director, in October 2004. He is now fulfilling his promise to repeat difficult works so that both the orchestra and the audience can get to know them better. And the performance this time was more mercurial, and more beautiful. Levine caught the Keystone Kops comedy behind the ominous “Premonitions,” the way “The Past” moves from charming to insistent, the alarming sudden shifts between violence and quietude in “Peripeteia,” and the urgency of the final peroration.
The Variations are harder to “get” (I still have trouble locating the theme that gets varied nine times) yet not hard to listen to. The last BSO performance was in 1980, but the orchestra gave us gossamer delicacy and the play of wit, as when a marching band (Variation III) bumps into a waltz, with subtle tambourine (IV). You might not leave humming the tunes, but you still end up being seduced. Both of these “difficult” pieces had more moment-to-moment character than Levine’s Beethoven did the week before.
The evening closed with the earliest and longest piece, the lush Late Romantic one-movement symphonic tone poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903), a non-vocal depiction of Maeterlinck’s star-crossed lovers, who had already mesmerized Fauré and Debussy. (The latter’s great, moody opera premiered the year before). Here there really are tunes to hum, but the large effect is both dramatic (Schoenberg follows the story of the distracted, “lost” Melisande and her ill-fated affair with her royal rescuer’s younger stepbrother) and broodingly rhapsodic. Levine led this with passionate restraint and gathering momentum.