During this season of conductor James Levine’s Spine of Discontent, we’ve been treated to a formidable succession of guest conductors. The much-respected and eminently capable octogenarian Bernard Haitink, BSO conductor emeritus, rounded out this impressive group as he took the podium for the first of three performances of the orchestra’s final program of the ’09-’10 season Thursday evening, April 29 at Symphony Hall.
The Hall’s half-moon clerestory windows were glowing Maxfield Parrish blue, and the afternoon’s gale force winds gradually subsiding as things got underway. A full house of appreciative patrons was treated to a hearty musical goulash consisting of generous dollops of Beethoven and Bartók. Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 2, actually the first of four he wrote for his only opera Fidelio (yes, it’s a bit confusing), got things off to a dramatic start. The longest of Beethoven’s overtures, such a massive, rhythmically emphatic piece would certainly be a hard act for an opera to follow; fortunately, it was never actually used for its original purpose. As a stand-alone piece it works quite admirably, and Maestro Haitink’s crisp, energetic conducting guided the orchestra in an elegant rendition. One senses that Beethoven struggled mightily to keep this pseudo-symphony from bursting its overture-ian britches; amusingly, he resorted to using a pair of trumpet fanfares to rein in the nearly out-of-control development in the orchestra.
After whetting our appetites, more Beethoven was on the menu. Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Opus 58, written during a white-hot creative period when he was in his mid 30s, featured the inestimable Emanuel Ax at the keyboard. Amazingly, this piece was given its public premiere as part of a four-hour program featuring, among other things, Symphonies 5 and 6 as well as selections from the Mass in C. There was also more than a touch of poignancy, in that it was to be the last concert featuring Beethoven as soloist, due to his rapidly deteriorating hearing. Mr. Ax certainly knows his way around a keyboard and was more than up to the task of filling Beethoven’s shoes. This concerto features an extremely talkative piano, and Ax made its voice sparkle and breathe like a living thing. He played with a firm legato that resulted in ringing tones and a melodic line that stood out in sharp relief as his fingers spidered nimbly up and down the keyboard. Guessing, however, that Beethoven’s rendition might have been characterized by a tad less in the way of control and reserve; if only we had a recording of the original event! Soloist, conductor, and orchestra combined forces to yield a polished re-creation that precipitated a protracted standing-o.
Fast-forward a century and a third: Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, exiled and miserable in New York, is given a commission by BSO conductor Serge Koussevitzky for an orchestral work. Thus is born his Concerto for Orchestra, one of his most accessible and, not coincidentally, most popular compositions. Written near the end of his life, this piece’s softened edges reflect a somewhat mellowed, though still quite angular, Bartók. As an orchestral concerto, all animals in the musical zoo get a chance to squeak, squawk, quack, purr, and roar. This is actually quite the exotic menagerie: not exactly Peter and the Wolf; more along the lines of Béla and the Platypus. The exposed instrumental parts and exquisitely schizophrenic nature of the melodies are a challenge for both players and conductor alike. Bernard Haitink’s precise conducting style proved highly effective at navigating the orchestra through the sinuous twists and unpredictable turns of the music, and the instrumentalists were more than up to their individual challenges. Woodwinds sang sweetly; the brass was coherent and confident. After a heavy shower of fourths in the opening Andante, the “Giuoco delle coppie” (Game of the couples) is Bartók at his analytical best, featuring an intriguing progression of isolated wind pairs in succession, each with its own particular interval. Shadowy equations and variables swirled about the stage; the underlying mathematics were palpable, and surprisingly palatable. There’s sarcasm too, as the penultimate movement, a soothing Intermezzo, is jarringly interrupted by a parody of a theme from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7. Never a dull moment; all handled with aplomb and panache by Haitink & Co. After the enthusiastic standing ovation, one was left wondering if the winds outside Symphony Hall could be interpreted as the winds of change …