in: Reviews

March 26, 2009

BSO Burnishes Brahms, Bruckner

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Austrian conductor Hans Graf led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in glowing concerts given March 19-24, 2009, of the Bruckner Seventh Symphony and the Brahms “Double” Concerto at Symphony Hall. Soloists in the Brahms were Dutch violinist Janine Jansen and American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, young women of exceptional talent and musical maturity.

Music Director of the Houston (TX) Symphony since 2001, Graf has been a frequent guest conductor of the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood and Symphony Hall over the past several seasons, and, on the strength of the orchestra’s response to his clear and incisive direction, appears to be a favored visitor.

Graf opened this intriguing program with the Brahms: Concerto in a for Violin, ‘Cello, and Orchestra, op. 102, familiarly known as his “Double” Concerto. Written in 1887, it was to be his only concerto written for two instruments and the last of the composer’s original works for orchestra. His very last orchestral pieces appeared two years later as orchestrations of three of his piano four-hands Hungarian Dances.

The “Double” is a somewhat curious work, one which, at least to this listener, doesn’t hold together quite as well as Brahms’s other concerti. There is less overall concision and less of a unifying arch-like form which so beautifully conjoins the movements of his other works for soloist and orchestra. That being said, there are certainly several rapturous moments in this concerto, and these were lovingly lingered over by the BSO musicians and the two soloists, all attentive to Graf’s vigilant and precise indications.

Both Jansen and Weilerstein engaged in a good deal of physical body language, with much soulful eyes-closed ceiling-gazing from the latter. But no matter – one was convinced that this was merely an extension of each player’s complete involvement with the music. More importantly, they also constantly watched one another to coordinate their mutual entrances and handing-off of motivic elements throughout the work’s implicit give-and-take, necessary because of there being two solo voices in this concerto instead of the usual one. Graf skillfully sculpted the orchestra’s contributions into elegant frames of accompaniment. The final result was as strong a case for this work as I have encountered, and the Symphony Hall audience agreed, offering up a cheering ovation, clearly directed toward the two soloists, but also for the rich and robust orchestral contributions so elegantly played by the BSO.

After intermission, Graf appeared “solo” to conduct the mighty Symphony No. 7 in E by Anton Bruckner. This great work received an unusual interpretation, but in the best sense of the word, though the overall experience was a bit dampened by a missing spark, a sense of exultation and release, that must be part of the listening experience if this long and emotionally draining work is to have the impact its composer surely wished.

Throughout the aural painting of this vast musical canvas one was happily and constantly reminded of what a great instrument the Boston Symphony has been restored to since James Levine’s arrival. The orchestra has always harbored wonderful individual players, but they now play together with a fabulous unanimity of musical sense and sound that was only occasionally heard in the recent past, and usually only when coaxed from the players by a particularly inspiring or insistent guest conductor. There are also more smiles on stage, too – gratifying to behold.

Graf’s essay of this Bruckner Symphony was tightly controlled and elegantly presented, with carefully planned balances between the choirs of the orchestra. Woodwinds and strings enjoyed freedom to play without fear of being swamped by the large section of brass instruments, augmented here by four Wagner tubas and a contrabass tuba. Those brass, too, “never played louder than lovely,” as British soprano Isobelle Bailey once cautioned. The rich, fully formed and sonorous playing of these virtuosi was a wonder to hear, never veering into coarseness.

But was it precisely this constant control that may have contributed to the overall failure of this performance to elate and inspire? All was beautifully played, but even the great climax of the Andante movement, spiked here by Graf’s happy election to ask cymbal and triangle to join in as Bruckner had been urged to add by the brothers Schalk and conductor Arthur Nikisch – even this climactic moment seemed a bit muted, when it should in fact overwhelm. Perhaps Graf was trying at all costs to avoid the vulgarity and overplaying one can often hear in Bruckner, and thus UNDER-played his interpretation?

All in all, though, this thoughtful interpretation and execution made a compelling case for Bruckner’s utter mastery of long-spun melody, rigorous counterpoint and rich, organ-like sonorities. Graf, conducting from memory, obviously has this, his countryman’s music, in his bones. It was pleasant to see the orchestra – and audience – once again offering him a fervent ovation at evening’s end. He will surely be back.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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