in: Reviews

April 25, 2009

Cellist Natalia Gutman and the Boston Philharmonic: Prokofiev and Brahms at their Best

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Under the baton of Benjamin Zander, the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra presented two masterpieces: Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 125, featuring Russian cellist Natalia Gutman, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73, on Thursday, April 23 at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. As part of the Philharmonic’s “Discovery Series,” Zander described the historical background and gave musical insights and listening cues prior to each composition’s performance to ensure that every member of the audience could connect with the piece on some level, even if they were attending their first classical concert. Zander further engaged with the audience by welcoming specific groups in the audience and greeting concert-goers during the intermission, adding a unique personal touch to the evening.

Prokofiev wrote the Symphony-Concerto (1950-52) as a reworking of his Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 58 (1933-38), for famed Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. After hearing Rostropovich perform the aforementioned E minor Cello Concerto, a composition with which Prokofiev was greatly dissatisfied, he vowed to write a revised piece for Rostropovich; and over the next three years, Prokofiev and Rostropovich worked together to produce the Symphony-Concerto, the last large-scale piece Prokofiev wrote before his death in 1953. Consisting of three movements – an opening Andante (instead of the expected Allegro of the fast-slow-fast standard concerto structure), an elaborate and extended scherzo (Allegro giusto), and concluding with a theme and variations (Andante con moto Allegro) – this piece is one of the most challenging in the cello repertoire.

Zander presented Gutman, who studied under Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter, as having “absolute authenticity of every bone in her body.” Gutman, whose body language and face changed little throughout the performance, confidently led the BPO through the wild ride of Prokofiev’s cello masterpiece. After a couple of shaky interactions, with the orchestra hurrying to maintain pace with the cello at the beginning of the Andante, they both settled into a moving rendition of the movement, illustrated through the orchestra’s expertly executed dynamic swells and support of each soloist, whether the cello, flute or oboe. Gutman proved her mastery of the entire range of the cello (in the Andante, the cello part covers more than four octaves), especially when handling runs of double-stopped notes (a difficult technique of playing two notes at the same time) with ease.

The orchestra, an intermingling of professionals, amateurs and students, provided a strong foundation under Gutman’s cantabile, lyrical lines and virtuosic runs over the next two movements. The orchestra’s support was especially apparent in its sensitivity to Gutman’s entrances, subtly quieting into the background to give her opening runs and melodies maximum attention. An especially impressive moment was the skillful balance of the solo cello with the celesta entrance and ensuing eight measures of music (the celesta’s only appearance in the piece) in the third movement, both solo instruments’ melodic lines emerging from the rhythmic accompaniment of the entire orchestra.

Prokofiev employs essentially all fathomable applications of the cello in this piece – in addition to the anticipated solo and orchestral uses, the cello is also plucked like a harp, provides pizzicato bass-like accompaniment, plays on open strings, and uses double-stopped notes and the entire range of notes the cello can produce, among other techniques. Gutman did an extraordinary job in her treatment of each of these uses, each with their own character and feel. The slight drawback to Gutman’s performance was her treatment of the espressivo passages – each occurrence marked by a slowing down of the tempo coupled with flexibility in the meter. Often, this proved effective, with the music focusing intently on the cello’s melody, yet soon this method began to feel contrived with the orchestra occasionally needing to catch up to Gutman’s flexibility with the tempo. Overall, the Boston Philharmonic and Gutman presented a fantastic rendition of this beautifully challenging yet, sadly, seldom-performed Prokofiev orchestral masterpiece.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major (1877), one of his most popular works, featured many talented members of the orchestra, in addition to illustrating the orchestra’s ability to work together in producing swells of sound, exhibiting rhythmic control and distinct articulation – especially through their precise accents and seamless phrasing. The opening Allegro non troppo movement, steadily building on two motives presented in the opening bars by the basses and horns, also features Brahms’ love of simultaneously juxtaposing two beats against three (a variation on the hemiola). Highlights of this movement included the effortless sounding runs and melodies of the flutes and oboes as they wove in and out of the unified voice of the orchestra.

The second and third movements, featuring strong performances by the horn and woodwind sections, continued the wondrous impression of the first movement, with emphasized dynamics, swells of crescendos and decrescendos, and strict adherence to tempo markings and their returns. The careful attention to tempo proved especially effective in the third movement with the return of the opening Allegretto grazioso (Quasi Andantino) towards the end of the movement, successfully recreating the opening atmosphere in a different key and orchestration. Another strong presence of the third movement was the witty solo oboe presenting the opening theme and its recurrence at various points in this movement.

The concluding fourth movement again presented the orchestra as a unified force of music, playing with fantastic balance and sensitivity to each instrument’s part and changes in texture.  The forceful, effortlessly synchonized attacks of the string section provided the power behind this movement. Overall, this performance provided undeniable testimony to the Philharmonic’s musical skill and strength as an ensemble.

The Boston Philharmonic will be repeating this program at 8pm on Saturday, April 25 at Jordan Hall and again at 3pm on Sunday, April 26 at Sanders Theatre. Please visit http://www.bostonphil.org/BPO/ for additional details.

Elizabeth Perten is a doctoral student in Musicology at Brandeis University and also is pursuing a Joint MA in Women’s and Gender Studies. She graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University, with a BA in Music.

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