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Serkin and Eschenbach Perform Brahms


Christoph Eschenbach with Peter Serkin (Hilary Scott photo)

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 giocosoa 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.



9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. To me Mr. Prince’s article more reminds a gathering of irrelevant adjectives then a feedback about the Mr. Eschenbach playing Brahms. The only adjectives that I would use to describe the Symphony no. 4 under Eschenbach baton would be “the hilarious”. The enter symphony the BSO and Eschenbach were playing the Marko Polo game in the Tanglewood pool and the title of the performance was “lost in the Brahms Cacophony”. I do not know what kind “happy chemistry” author of the article recognized in there. In my view it was the worst BSO concert of the summer, not that I blame BSO – they did play much better than Mr. Eschenbach was trying to make them to play.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 1, 2011 at 11:29 am

  2. I tend to agree with Romy. As much as I admire the entrepreneurial efforts of Rudolph “wrong-note” Serkin, I would never go out of my way to attend a concert featuring Peter Serkin, save the fact that the Brahms 1st concerto is more an orchestral piece than a piano concerto, and one is at liberty to simply ignore the antics of the pianist, which in this case were fully in keeping with such a high degree of diffidence, and indeed yielded no cogent reading of the music. He just barely got through it (and almost didn’t at a couple of points). As for the Fourth Symphony, Maestro Eschenbach has much to be grateful for in the fine playing of the Boston Symphony, covering the sophomoric ineptness of his reading and his inability to lead the orchestra through it. He succeeded in making very tiresome fare out of very great music, and he managed, with a little help, to get through the concert without having to stop and start over. That’s about the level we’re at, and it’s disappointing to see the audience fly to their feet in thunderous standing ovation for such a flawed musical offering. Poor Brahms.

    Comment by Brahms169 — August 1, 2011 at 8:38 pm

  3. Don’t know where your reviewer was sitting but from where I was, Serkin sounded very muddy, as if his foot had gotten stuck on the pedal. The orchestra sounded unrehearsed, out of balance. These are two pieces I have loved for most of my life and I have never heard them performed so sloppily.

    Comment by Helen Epstein — August 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm

  4. The play that BSO show off with the Fourth Symphony at that day was in a way amassing.

    If you remember in the beginning of Jules Verne’s book “The Floating Island” there was an episode where the touring string quartet had a broken horse carriage and lost in some woods. Then they arrived to some sleepy village and in order to wake up the residences they decided to play Onslow’s B flat quartet but with each instrument is different tonality. In the way what BSO demonstrated with Brahms symphony was the same only the problem was not tonal but timing. And, oh boy, it was in a way so much fun to listen it!

    I do not like Tanglewood, there is a long list of the things that I do not like in there and I usually listen FM broadcasts. With all plusses and minuses of listening radio, Sound does not wary from random sits and many other factors; Sound is mostly more or less stable and has a constant mix.

    So, as the BSO was opening the first movements of the Brahms 4th I noted that different sections kick in at wrong time. They were right notes and the sections did play encapsulatingly- together but each of the section opened up at some kind of ridiculously-wrong instance. It was not that they were trying to play some king of kinky tempo or some kind artistic deviation of “something”, it was just ingenuously-wrong, almost random entering play from multiple BSO sections. For the first minute I was asking myself what they were doing and then I was laughing out loud. The BSO did in way brilliant things and they played OK Brahms notes only each instrumental group played it at different and slightly alternated tempo. It was as the musicians did not hear each other, had no conductor and no sense or care of what others were doing.

    You can say whatever you want about BSO but BSO does not do it ordinary and they are too good musicians to do it accidently. I have no idea what made them to do it, perhaps it was Eschenbach, I was not there and I did not see him. Still, BSO has too experienced people who shall not be playing like this even if my Cat would be conducting. I have no idea what happened in there but I will remember that dumping random sounds above each other in a random fashion.

    The art administrator of the Floating Island did recognized in that Onslow’s quartet great musicians as according to him it required much talent to play so disgusting. The play that BSO demonstrated was the play of great professionals as it requires having a lot of skills to play properly and at the same time to be so wrong. The only question that reminding is – why?

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 2, 2011 at 9:04 pm

  5. I, instead WAS there, and can attest it sounded off because it WAS all off!
    I love Tanglewood, go frequently, and have no problem with the acoustics, which are not Symphony Hall, but very honorable for an outdoor venue. I have gone every year since the late 1970’s, and have never experienced such a poorly executed performance. Sounded muddy? That’s because it WAS muddy, but this is to be expected from Peter Serkin, and I really anticipated little more. But the 4th? It is not at all expected to hear such an ambiguous performance of such standard repertoire from the Boston Symphony. I am serious when I suggest there were several points where one wondered if it would not be better to simply stop, abandon, take it again from the top and see if we can make something better of it, such was the lack of musical leadership emanating from Eschenbach. Had he simply not shown up that night the orchestra would have done a much better job of it.

    As a Brahms lover, I am deeply saddened to find myself bored to tears by such an uninspired and frankly incompetent reading. To blame? Largely the audience themselves who shower such ineptness with thunderous applause and standing ovations, as well as the press (see article above) who show little more discernment.

    Comment by Brahms169 — August 2, 2011 at 9:40 pm

  6. Oops, it looks like this interface does not allow to imbed video and the link was eaten. Anyhow, here it comes:

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 2, 2011 at 11:49 pm

  7. Brahms169: As a Brahms lover, I am deeply saddened to find myself bored to tears by such an uninspired and frankly incompetent reading. To blame?

    Who is to blame? I think in context of what is going on it shall not be any blame. I have a theory…
    BSO play surprisingly good since the beginning of the summer season and then this fiasco with Brahms. Surprise? Well, not necessarily. If you look what was under the hood of the horrible play of the 4th symphony then you will realize that BSO does not do those types of mistakes with such a surprising consistency. Even if Mr. Eschenbach gave to that some absolutely ridicules signals then the experience of the BSO lead and their familiarity with Tanglewood setting shall be correcting the synchronization of the arrival time. Still, BSO sections were completely lost in the woods time-wise with all miserable consequential sonic outcome.

    So, the theory that I have is that BSO did it quite intentional. It is no secret that nowadays any BSO guest conductor who throw a distinctly-positive impression about him/herself might be in one way or other be considered in the role of BSO permanent lead. So, I think that ridiculously-ugly play that BSO showed was the way for BSO musicians to assure that it will not be Christoph Eschenbach. I do not know if it was conscious decision of BSO player or it was more like composite unexpressed feelings of the sections leads but it was not an ordinary mistake. If that artistic protest that BSO demonstrated was in fact a cognizant action then I can only applaud to what BSO did. I do feel very comfortable if BSO musicians would demonstrate their vote for new musical director by this way. In fact it is exactly how it shall be.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — August 3, 2011 at 7:17 am

  8. I liked the symphony a good bit more than the concerto, which was wayward to the point of becoming shapeless. By the time it was over, my son and I looked at eachother and both said the same thing: “No wonder Philly threw him out.” Eschenbach’s conception of the work was not worthy of a great orchestra, and neither was Serkin’s playing. “Music-box” Brahms is no more convincing than “music-box” Mozart. So much for the tinkling in Movement II. And when Serkin did try to muscle up and take control in I, inaccuracy became a real problem. The big double octave trills were awful. The symphony, at least, was tighter and better played as some first-desk players who had not played the concerto (flutist Elizabeth Rowe, trumpeter Thomas Rolfs, clarinetist William Hudgins) came on to effect a partial rescue. I was struck by the reviewer’s final comment that Eschenbach has big shoes to fill in Washington in the aftermath of Mstislav Rostropovich’s death. Err, the conductor Eschenbach replaced was Leonard Slatkin who led the National Symphony from 1996 to 2008. Different shoes indeed.

    Comment by Annapolis Critic — August 3, 2011 at 10:41 pm

  9. It’s summertime, guys. Tanglewood is an important economic engine for the BSO and Symphony Hall standards cannot always apply.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 5, 2011 at 11:09 am

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