The Boston Symphony Orchestra began the current series of concerts this week unusually on Tuesday (April 13) instead of Thursday. Before intermission its much praised assistant conductor, the Canadian Julian Kuerti, now in his third season, led the ensemble in beautifully nuanced performances of György Ligeti’s Concert Românesc (Romanian Concerto), and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, op. 35. The program ended with an ebullient, popsian (if I may coin a word) performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, op. 17 (“Little Russian”). The sold-out house stood in well-deserved ovation for Kuerti at the close.
Ligeti’s Concert Românesc was first written in 1951 during a time in Hungary when composers were expected to produce choral music in folk style, and innovative music was generally put away somewhere for another day. This Concerto was originally commissioned by a Hungarian Soldiers’ Orchestra and first performed by them in 1952. Although it may have been published by Zenemýukiadó in Budapest in 1954, the score currently in use was published by Schott in 1996, and represents Ligeti’s revisions in the early 1990s. It calls for winds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets) and percussion in pairs, plus strings. A third horn plays briefly off-stage as an echo in the third movement. As can be imagined, the work is quite a surprise, being so unlike Ligeti’s music written after he fled from Hungary in 1956. The four movements (slow–fast–slow–fast) flow into each other, are quite tonal, and brief—the whole Concerto lasts only about twelve minutes. But spell-binding minutes they are, in the hands of Kuerti and the BSO’s legendary strings, which open the first Andantino, later joined by woodwinds and horns. This and the second, dancing movement, which adds trumpet and percussion are orchestrations of two pieces for two violins (1950), originally entitled “Ballad” and “Dance” respectively. For me the third movement (“Adagio ma non troppo”) was nearly the highlight of the concert, with its unbelievable double sense of spareness and yet lushness, achieved with minimal means. The Orchestra’s pianissimos are ravishing. The final movement is a rapid, energetic romp. By the way, kudos to the BSO’s Robert Kirzinger for his excellent historical program notes for this work.
Shostakovich’s first Piano Concerto (1933) is really a double concerto for piano and trumpet (although the piano takes priority) and strings. So the trumpet, here well performed by the BSO’s principal, Thomas Rolfs, not only remains unsupported by any other brass or wind sounds, but alternately grounds and soars distinctly over the ensemble. Marc-André Hamelin was the incredibly virtuosic pianist. He opened the first movement brilliantly with the nearly unaccompanied theme, and continued to exhibit sure control over mostly rapid and difficult passage work. Again the introspective slow movement (“Lento”) was absolutely magical: true interplay among the soloists and the strings, listening attentively and responding to each other. The brief third movement, really an interlude for piano, gave way to a final and vigorous Allegro con brio, that includes a cadenza based on the theme of Beethoven’s Rondo a capriccio, op. 129 (“Rage over a Lost Penny”). Northeastern University’s Harlow Robinson, author of the well-written program notes for this work and the next, also gave the preconcert talk, which I did not hear.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, in C minor, op. 17 (“Little Russian”) was written in 1872 and revised in 1880. (Kalmus publishes a single edition of both versions.) The performance here seemed almost in-your-face after the wonders of the preceding: loud + fast = too often muddy. The work is full of orchestrations of various Russian folk tunes treated in a grandiose, even pompous manner—especially the opening of the Finale. But it is also full of dances and fun, and Kuerti played it accordingly. The concert-mistress for this piece was the Siberian Tamara Smirnova, and during the long applause for Kuerti, she was seen vigorously tapping her bow across her violin.