in: Reviews

July 12, 2010

BSO Under Frühbeck Presents Beethoven, Mozart-Strauss Programs

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This past weekend at Tanglewood, the BSO and Maestro Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos offered an all-Beethoven feast of on Saturday night, July 9 with Gerhard Oppitz as soloist in Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, followed by a Sunday matinee, July 10 that included Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, K. 219 with Pinchas Zukerman, and Richard Strauss’ extraordinary tone poem, Ein Heldenleben.

Saturday night’s program opened with Beethoven’s “King Stephen” Overture, Op. 117, followed by the concerto, and a rousing Fifth Symphony after intermission. The all-too-infrequently performed Overture (the last BSO performance was in 1987 under the baton of Charles Dutoit) presented a good counterbalance in programming to the tried-and-true Fifth Symphony. Frühbeck honored the opportunity to bring this less familiar work into the collective musical consciousness of the packed Koussevitsky Music Shed. Giving special attention to the winds, he highlighted certain motivic distinctions that could have easily disappeared under an overwrought sense of Beethovenian extravagance. The orchestra capitalized upon Frühbeck’s sensitivity toward aural cohesion by keeping the sense of overture without sacrificing the value as a stand-alone work. With the exception of a brief moment near the end where the strings entered as if caught by surprise, it was an engaging and solid performance of a piece that deserves more visibility in orchestral programming.

One of the great pleasures of the weekend was to watch Maestro Frühbeck’s rapport with the various soloists. Gerhard Oppitz delivered a performance of Piano Concerto No. 3 that was operatic and virtuosic, if at times a bit heavy in some of the faster passagework. The low strings of the BSO deserve accolades for their responsive attention to the work’s softest (and subtly dramatic) moments. Oppitz and the orchestra delivered a truly magical Largo; wherein the romantic arpeggios underneath the solo winds created an intimate tapestry that blurred the rhetorical lines between soloist and orchestra. Both the ensemble and Oppitz articulated the emotional transformation of the movement’s theme. The final iteration in the piano was both heartbreaking and breathtaking, inviting the listener to wallow in a moment of almost Chopinesque melancholy before the tricky transition to the final Rondo Allegro. Here Oppitz revealed the fun rhythmic flourishes without gimmick. With professional self-possession, he appreciatively allowed orchestral solos and passages to shine, clearly enjoying the duality of performing and listening.

There is, of course, a temptation to end any concert with the Fifth Symphony as if it were one big finale. In some respects it is, taking into account two hundred years of reception history and the fact that it is probably the most recognizable work in the classical repertory. Frühbeck led the orchestra down the familiar path of the score, occasionally highlighting a brief moment here and there, but for the most part allowed the orchestra tremendous agency in their performance of the piece. From the seismic activity in the double basses in the trio of the third movement to the precociousness of the brass in the fourth, the BSO showed no fear of making the work larger than life. The fourth movement was a finale’s finale—the orchestra constantly defying expectations that we had heard everything they had to give until Beethoven’s final C Major affirmation. Frühbeck and the BSO both seemed to know that it is a work that doesn’t need manipulation or surprises to remain relevant and invigorating.

Sunday afternoon’s matinee was altogether a very different concert–more of a showcase of the BSO’s range of stylistic capabilities, as well as Frühbeck’s own versatility as a conductor. Mozart’s Serenade No. 6 in D, K. 239 (“Serenata notturna”) featured BSO Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, as well as principals Haldan Martinson on violin, Steven Ansell on viola, and Edwin Barker on double bass. Rather than playing as a standard concertino, the quartet maintained the inward intimacy of a string quartet while Frühbeck saw to it that quartet and string orchestra danced together in balance. The opening march was whimsical but never flippant, and negotiated the “maestoso” without ever losing sense of the serenade. The Menuetto offered the best of both worlds with some sublime playing from the solo quartet before the closing Allegretto. Both the quartet and orchestra captured the charm of the final movement, but also illuminated the somewhat surprising Handelian slow episode that is perhaps the most intriguing element of the work.

Pinchas Zukerman, who is no stranger to the BSO either as soloist or conductor, played Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 with effortless sophistication. He approached the work with virtuosic gentility, executing amazing dynamic contrasts and nuanced phrasing. One had the sense of almost a private joke between Zukerman and Frühbeck, as the actual conducting seemed to be more of a collaborative effort between the two men. The orchestra seemed very aware of Zukerman’s tender delivery, and made sure to engage in striking moments of appropriate contrast, particularly in the Allegro of the final movement.

But it was not Zukerman who offered the final solo showcase for the evening. That honor went to Malcolm Lowe, who returned as soloist in Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. Lowe’s performance in “The Hero’s Companion” was a respite from the relentless bombast that inhabits much of the piece. Frühbeck conducted with free abandon and this did have some negative ramifications as the sheer epic proportions of the work can almost usurp the quiet beauty of the solo violin’s mini-concerto. There were other moments of escape as well, including, somewhat aptly, the exquisite English horn and harps in “The Hero’s Escape from the World and Fulfillment.” The “Hero’s Battlefield” section was engaging visually and musically, and the orchestra provided a sound montage that erred only slightly on the side of grandiosity. In the end, it was Lowe’s re-entry with the love theme (as well as resplendent playing by the strings and horns) that allowed the performance to be something more than merely “energized.” His eloquent phrasing and mezzavoce sonorities resonated far more strongly than the tutti sword brandishing and Strauss’s somewhat self-congratulatory exuberance.

Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.

1 Comment

  1. >>between Zukerman and Frühbeck, … the actual conducting seemed to be more of a collaborative effort between the two men.

    This was very much in evidence at the Saturday open rehearsal, a very satisfying morning, BTW, which used a lot of time on the Strauss, and the rest on the K.219. Mr. Zukerman (who sat in the hall during the Stauss run-through) addressed the orchestra directly on one point of interpretation, and, later on, played facing the other musicians.

    Comment by Peter from Newton MA — July 13, 2010 at 10:48 am

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