What an evening with the Boston Symphony Orchestra! Kurt Masur, conductor, and Nelson Freire, piano, presented a program of Robert Schumann’s grandest oeuvres, Thursday, November 18 at Symphony Hall. I don’t believe I missed a moment in all of the two symphonies and a concerto. A singleness of musical purpose overwhelmed from the very start, or better, that purpose began shaping up some fifteen minutes before the eight-note horn and trombone call opened Symphony No. 1 in B-Flat, opus 38, “Spring.”
In a huddle at intermission with seasoned symphony goers, a somewhat startling observation was made: the orchestra had not been onstage warming up prior to Masur’s appearance. Was this a Masur move? Whoever it was who kept the orchestra quiet preceding the concert surely deserves recognition. To the BSO for allowing a “noise free zone” let’s all of us give a silent standing O— but then, as one audience member related, “The standing O by now has lost much of its punch.” Really, pre-concert practicing onstage, rampant among Boston orchestras, should stop. Let’s hope this might be the start of pre-concert quiet.
At 8:05, when Masur took the podium, the orchestra was poised and ready — the audience nearly so. Still some shuffling could be heard during the beckoning horn and trombone in unison at forte. A golden musical domain came into being and would continue through to the final chords of Symphony No. 4 in d minor, opus 120, the last of the three monumental works heard on this program at Symphony Hall.
Symphonic experiences such as this occur only once in a while. I, and others I am certain, were drawn into some of the most wondrous music-making imaginable. Phrase by phase, instrument by instrument, movement by movement, Schumann’s music with Masur, Freire and the BSO unfolded seamlessly. It was only as I took my leave at concert’s end that I realized I had been totally engaged in every bit of the eleven movements, every one of them composed by the very same man. I am sure there were others wondering how our attention could have been so narrowly focused, relatively speaking, for so long.
Was it Greek philosopher Plutarch who observed that all things are subject to motion? At Thursday’s concert, each contributor, Masur, Freire and the BSO, subjected Schumann’s music to incomparable motion the entire evening — breathing life into the smallest of features. No wonder there were many indescribable moments! There was breathtaking beauty as much in the vibrant orchestral tone and timbre as in the clear and natural routing of one symphonic texture on to yet another.
Through his moves, far too many hidden from audience view making for mystery as much as peaking curiosity, Masur confirmed generous orchestral input. In turn, the orchestra responded to Masur: as when in a string passage with rapid up-and-down bow strokes, Masur mimicked them, a show of team effort; or, when he rounded off the big D-Major harmony at the end of the fourth symphony instead of cutting it off. His arms outstretched, almost apelike, asking for big sound then, with palms turning quickly but smoothly downward, signaling a slight reduction in volume, Masur elevated the more common act of releasing harmony to eloquence and acoustical naturalness.
Brazilian pianist Freire faced Piano Concerto in A minor, opus 54, with singleness of musical purpose as did all the musicians onstage at Symphony Hall. His playing, too, was spectacular in its ever-tuned ear for detail which shaped answers to bigger questions that Schumann’s score forever poses. Somewhere between artifice and humanity entered his conception in which piano speed never exceeds ear-speed, where delicacy becomes intimacy, in a figurative invitation to join him in onstage. His pale, pastel-like melancholies, traded with wistfulness ever so Schumann-like, drew us in.
Masur clasped his hands in a composed but firm gesture of approval.