On Saturday 30 July, Christoph Eschenbach led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in an all-Brahms program at the Koussevitzky Shed, Tanglewood; this Evelyn and Samuel Lourie Memorial Concert featured Peter Serkin performing Brahms, Piano Concerto no. 1 in d, Op. 15, and the orchestra in Symphony no. 4 in e, Op. 98.
Peter Serkin embodies his touch on the keyboard, harnessing whole-body gesture and movement in the service of the desired sound. This is not random or excessive movement of one sitting in front of a piano, but the touch on the keys amplified. There is no question but that it affects the sound: the range of sounds Serkin coaxed from the Steinway is immensely varied, from a caressing whisper to a thundering declamation. Brahms’ first Piano Concerto opens with a Maestoso that is forceful and tender by turns; the orchestra, here united and playing as a coherent ensemble, pronounces the theme. The piano sneaks in softly, the orchestra matching Serkin’s rubatos, phrasing, and dynamics perfectly. The second movement, Adagio, is introspective with a clear arc and increasing intensity, soloist and orchestra together building a movement of aching beauty. The finale, Allegro non troppo, is energetic with clearly articulated fugal voices in the piano part and playful, responsive interactions between piano and orchestra. The BSO performed as a united ensemble across all sections, as one with the soloist.
After intermission, Eschenbach led the orchestra in a lush and invigorating reading of Brahms, Symphony no. 4. The Allegro non troppo stands out for a keen focus with piercing lyric lines, here performed with passion and verve. The Andante moderato opens forcefully yet remains expansive, pointed even in the softer dynamics, always with a forward momentum that keeps the music from wallowing into banality. After this noble pathos comes the sharp contrast of the Allegro giocoso: a sprightly dance with elements of sadness and undercurrents of dramatic tension. The swirling arabesques in the later iteration of the theme recall Beethoven’s scherzos, reminders of the interplay between major and minor, tragedy and joy, as well as Brahms’ own place in the history of music as a German composer in the wake of Beethoven’s craggy genius. The finale, Allegro energico e passionato, begins as a forceful, indeed fateful, statement in an unrelentingly minor vein, yet one that always remains lush, gorgeous. Brahms lays down themes striving yet unable to take flight and the BSO offers a sensitive reading of this anguish and despair, interlarded with sadness and wistful recall of earlier themes. The effect is less nostalgia or despair than resigned acceptance. The powerful resolution grants the whole a satisfying, cathartic conclusion.
Christoph Eschenbach, since 2010 music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, directed the Boston Symphony Orchestra in an incisive and unified performance. Eschenbach uses the conductor’s baton like an artist’s brush, painting the shape and scope of the sounds. During the piano concerto, is baton worked in tandem with Serkin’s fully embodied performance at the keyboard and the two together made manifest the interpretation of the work. During the symphony, Eschenbach (conducting from memory) engaged the members of the orchestra directly to actualize Brahms’s tragic masterpiece. For all the motion in Eschenbach’s baton, the directions to the orchestra are clear and the players were synchronized into a single massed instrument. The conducting style is neither wholly agogic nor wholly metronomic, but combines elements of both. Entrances were clearly marked, but so was the overall form of the phrase. Clearly this is a happy amalgam for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Between Eschenbach and Boston Symphony there appeared last night a happy chemistry. I hope we will see more of that in years to come, ideally as a guest artist. Meanwhile, I wish him all the best in Washington; it cannot be easy to step into shoes left vacant by Rostropovich’s death.
Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.