in: Reviews

March 12, 2009

Two Delights and One Disappointment

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Thursday evening, March 12, Herbert Blomstedt conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in performances of the Nielsen’s “Helios” overture, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat, K.456 with pianist Richard Goode, and Brahm’s Symphony No 4. The first two pieces were new to me, and welcome. Nielsen manages to pack the glory of a sun-filled day into 10 minutes of music. The piece starts with a pianissimo note on the low strings. Gradually the higher strings enter, and the horns announce the dawn. Trumpets and brass describe full sun, a joyous fugue fills the day, winding down to the horns, and finally low strings again. Nielsen’s musical voice is original and marvelously descriptive. The orchestra played with verve – clearly excited by the piece. Some of the entrances were ragged, the horn playing not as secure as can be – but these problems are likely to be worked out as the in later performances. The horn section received, and deserved, a solo bow.

The Mozart was an equal pleasure. The smaller orchestra played with precision and attention to detail. The first and third movements were light and upbeat. The second movement in G minor was the heart of the piece, a lament for times and loves lost. Richard Goode played with great expressiveness, sometimes barely audible over the orchestra. His playing in the two vivace movements was never overbearing and used very little pedal, successfully invoking the style of a pianoforte. A few disagreements about tempo between him and the orchestra are likely to be worked out in subsequent performances. The woodwind playing was exceptional throughout.

The Mozart was an equal pleasure. The smaller orchestra played with precision and attention to detail. The first and third movements were light and upbeat. The second movement in G minor was the heart of the piece, a lament for times and loves lost. Richard Goode played with great expressiveness, sometimes barely audible over the orchestra.

The Brahms was well played – but ultimately disappointing. Brahms composed his fourth symphony during the last years of his life, with the full realization that he was not destined to write another. It was a time of turmoil in Europe, with anti-Semitism rapidly increasing. The ultimate result was foreseen by him as the end of the intellectual tolerance and creativity that filled the artistic life of Vienna. The eventual horrors of the holocaust proved him more than right. The three movements in minor keys forsehadow these events. They have grandeur enough, and sadness aplenty. The third movement, in C major, is a great contrast – full of old-fashioned pomp. If Brahms was emulating Beethoven in his last symphony, Brahms would have ended there. But he does not. The final movement, a long chaconne on a slightly modified theme by Bach, is somber and foreboding. There are moments of hope and beauty, such as a wonderful flute solo which received a solo bow, but a loss of hope is evident. The performance rose to the heights of this music, but mostly failed to probe the depths. Perhaps it was the orchestra’s familiarity with the work that prevented them from getting to the heart of it – perhaps it was the conductor’s familiarity. The piece was mostly just loud.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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