in: Reviews

November 23, 2016

The Master at His Symphony Hall Piano

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Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Assistant Conductor Moritz Gnann chose Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Dvořák for Tuesday’s concert (repeating Friday and Saturday). This was a concert full of contrasts—from the subtle palette of tone colors employed in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, to the full force of an orchestra powering through Dvorak’s 9th Symphony From the New World; and from the youthful vibrancy of an early-career conductor, to the frail yet masterful piano soloist Menahem Pressler playing Mozart’s final piano concerto (K. 595).  While choices could be said to have been decidedly “traditional,” the repertoire provided excitement and élan throughout.

Named for an acoustic marvel on the island of Staffa in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, Mendelssohn’s Overture commemorates the composer’s trip to view Fingal’s Cave. Its hexagonal basalt columns link mythologically as well as geophysically to the “Giant’s Causeway” in Ireland. Mendelssohn’s inspired music and Turner’s canvas (both dating from 1832) turned this cave into a destination on tours of the Scottish Isles. The theme came to Mendelssohn while visiting the site, and we have a postcard to Fanny recording the phrase which informs this overture. Like the ocean, there are always currents in this music. This reading captured the nuances, the majesty, here, even if it remained less dramatic than a full-blown storm. The celli held long sonorous vocal lines and the opening conveyed the shimmering of light on water, with a vibrant warm sound from the strings. While the woodwind calls weren’t always in sync during the development, this was quickly redeemed with beautifully realized solos in the clarinets. The remoteness of the islands was warmed with Gnann’s captivating reading of this beloved work, and I heard it as if for the first time as layers of sound delicately swirled up and back through the orchestra.

Mozart’s final piano concerto, No. 27 in B-flat Major, was premiered with the composer at the keyboard at what was to be his final concert outing in 1791. This concerto is the perfect example of the composer-as-virtuoso, energetic in its outer movements and delicately self-assured in the center. The great Menahem Pressler, physically frail at 93 and assisted on and off the stage, proved redoubtable in the concerto;  he functioned both as virtuoso soloist and the compleat chamber partner. An enthralling performance, this was less a concerto featuring soloist-versus-ensemble than it was a respectful conversation among all parties, with sharing of attention and emphasis in a fluid exchange.

Pressler achieves a rare grace and a delicacy which brought out the filigree within each gesture, within careful arcs of sound mimicked by graceful hand movements as they left the keyboard at the conclusion of a phrase—almost as if he were handing the reins back to the conductor. There is a decidedly Classical touch here. The interplay between piano and orchestra sounded nuanced and refined, especially in the second movement. The third movement came at a restrained tempo; Pressler took the theme of this rondo with the coyness of a cat baiting a mouse. This slower tempo allowed the usually overheard inner motifs to come out. It was engaging and wondrous, marred only by the incessant coughing, squirming and whispering of a poorly trained and disrespectful audience.

Following two standing ovations, Pressler carefully returned to the stage with Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor. This was a musical gift to an audience that was appreciative if not deserving. Pressler interpreted with generous rubato, bringing out the pathos of the work’s subtitle ‘Reminiscence’. A final, lengthy standing ovation for the great master followed and it was a privilege to stand and clap.

Moritz Gnann leads BSO and Menahem Pressler (Hilary Scott photo)

Moritz Gnann leads BSO and Menahem Pressler (Hilary Scott photo)

Dvořák’s 9th Symphony “From the New World” was premiered in New York City in December 1893 by the New York Philharmonic, and was taken into the BSO’s repertory a mere two weeks later. Dvořák was heading the newly formed, long now defunct National Conservatory of Music in New York City, and created a work that borrowed folk idioms from his native Bohemia, the grandiosity of scale of the romantic symphony, and perhaps even some stylistic elements from America folk songs which he had picked up from his American composition students. This melting pot of compositional styles disclosed a resplendent power, utilizing the full force of the orchestra; it was certainly Gnann’s shining moment. He knew the score well and the orchestra were responsive for the most part, even if not all the tempo changes happened as smoothly as they could.

In the first movement some insecurity in the brass passed immediately and we heard an assurance which brought out Dvořák’s expansive compositional language. In direct contrast to the reserved and subtle nuances of Mendelssohn, this was assertive in both score and execution. The exquisite second movement, with its opening brass chorale and lush English horn solo begs the question: are we really hearing the pathos and longing of an artist far from his homeland, or have we imposed this reading onto what is a lush and moving melody, expertly crafted and in this iteration, masterfully realized? The English horn solo rose seamlessly, as if in a single breath. The second theme in the movement had some rocky rubato; Gnann knew what he wanted, but the orchestra was perhaps a split second late in coming to the party. The third and fourth movements signaled a return to utter precision, and the fourth movement brought forth an almost end-of-days level of might from both strings and brass.

While the Dvořák and Mendelssohn were both delights, Pressler’s Mozart and Chopin stole the show.

Georgia Luikens is a violinist who holds undergraduate degrees in music and English literature from the University of New South Wales. She has a Masters in musicology from Brandeis University where she is a doctoral candidate.

4 Comments

  1. Having the chance to hear Menahem Pressler play in this concert was the draw for me, and I’m glad I went on Friday afternoon. But the pieces on the program are examples of the sort of thing that could be performed less frequently without great detriment. Each is fine music. The Mozart 27th has been a favorite of mine sine we got a new record player when I was a boy and it was the first thing I played — a recording featuring Robert Casadesus — and the first time I heard the concerto. Over the years, I have come to find the “New World” enjoyable. It seemed that I was able to hear details in each piece that I hadn’t noticed before, so I’d say they were well conducted and played, and, again, I was happy to heat them. Still, being familiar, they do not need frequent performance at the expense of other worthy pieces.

    The empty seats after intermission indicate that many came to hear Menahem Pressler, and rightly so. What a great opportunity there was to let the audiences hear one of the brief new works the orchestra has introduced over the past several years and one of the full-length pieces they commissioned for a major anniversary.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 27, 2016 at 7:19 pm

  2. With Pressler’s Mozart as broadcast Saturday night, the news for some listeners was how Gnann was somehow able to accompany the pianist’s painfully elderly pace without (for the most part) plodding or sounding ponderous. Quite a feat.

    Comment by david moran — November 27, 2016 at 10:06 pm

  3. The pace in the first two movements was remarkably like that of Schnabel and Barbiroli on EMI.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 28, 2016 at 8:07 am

  4. We’ll be able to directly compare soon enough. Till then, Schnabel’s static Larghetto is a third longer than others’ (don’t think it has to do with any repeats).

    Comment by david moran — November 28, 2016 at 12:46 pm

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