in: Reviews

October 22, 2011

Masur, Angelich and Brahms at BSO

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Kurt Masur conducts the BSO with pianist Nicholas Angelich (Stu Rosner photo)

On Thursday, October 20th, the audience of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was privileged to hear a program consisting of two large works of Johannes Brahms, conducted by one of the great elder statesmen among conductors, Kurt Masur, former music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. The scheduled piano soloist, Yefim Bronfman, was unable to appear due to a finger injury, but we were fortunate that a capable replacement, Nicholas Angelich, was found on short notice and there was no need to change the program.

The evening opened with Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat, opus 83, a piano concerto cum symphony which fairly frequently re-imagines the traditional Romantic Period roles of soloist and accompanying orchestra. After a caressing introductory dialogue with the solo horn, the sudden shift to forte in the piano part occasioned some borderline strident playing. Perhaps being accustomed to other concert halls, Angelich hadn’t fully adapted to the fabled benevolent acoustics of Symphony Hall. Fortunately, though, this “projecting” didn’t persist beyond the opening minutes and the epic first movement had a grandeur the more noble for being un-forced. Through the close collaboration of Masur and Angelich came a performance that served both the Romantic and Classical sides of Brahms’s style. Though the composer was a committed proponent of “absolute music”, the wonderful range of moods in this work must surely point to a self-portrait, self-admitted or not. Yet if this is a Romantic concept, it is balanced by the Classical principle (via the examples of Mozart and Beethoven) of an equal partnership between soloist and orchestra. A fine example of this is Brahms’s stormy second movement—Allegro appassionato—when piano and orchestra continually exchange soloist and accompaniment roles. I for one was struck by the difference in this regard between this live performance and my several classic recordings of the piece. Through the wonders of microphone placement, even when the piano should be part of the background, it still stands out on those recordings. Angelich was modest enough not to “hog the spotlight” when it was intended to be on the orchestra; each deferred to the other when appropriate. Passion was the common denominator, and there was plenty of it, though it never troubled the tight ensemble within the orchestra or between it and the piano (thank you, Maestro Masur).

In the sumptuous slow movement the spotlight shines on the solo cello almost as much as on the piano, and Jules Eskin gave us chastely beautiful playing in the Classical manner, supported by the burnished gold of the lower strings around him. Entering on gossamer wings, Angelich’s piano playing had the graceful line of a Chopin nocturne though growing more demonstrative at times. One especially magical moment stood out from many: following a pianissimo minor variation on the main theme, there was a sudden ppp harmonic shift to a remote key when it seemed performers and audience alike held their breath. Later, after a rapturous concluding phrase, one wanted to bask in the glow of the final chord, but with barely a break to take a breath the performers launched into the final movement. After the intensity (wonderful though it is) of the first three movements, the fourth was welcome for its delightful light-heartedness, even playfulness. There were delectable interludes of chamber music with piano and woodwinds as well as a “Hungarian” secondary theme to add a little gypsy flavor. After the decisive conclusion of the concerto, the audience expressed its approval heartily. Angelich made his Boston Symphony debut under less than ideal conditions, but he certainly proved his mettle conclusively.

After intermission came the Symphony No. 3 in F Major, opus 90, a work standing apart from Brahms’s other three symphonies for its cyclical construction featuring thematic connections among the first, second, and fourth movements. Also differentiating this symphony from Brahms’s three others is its leaner instrumentation. Nonetheless, Masur obtained an impressive range of textures and colors from the orchestra (in this regard, Masur’s interesting sartorial statement—a long, black shirt with a stock collar resembling an artist’s smock, albeit more formal—seemed most apt).

The winds are given a special emphasis throughout. In the first movement, for instance, they delivered the second theme with a sweetly autumnal color and an intimacy that complemented the declamation of the opening theme as played by the strings. In fact, intimacy and tenderness are the earmarks of the symphony as a whole, with all four movements ending peacefully. The lovely second movement, opening with wind instruments only, had a rustic feel, and the several clarinet solos were rendered beautifully by the principal, William R. Hudgins. Here the second theme was contributed by the strings, injecting a note of unease, but only temporarily, as the sunny opening theme won out.

In the affecting lament of the third movement, the cellos lent their silken tone to the main theme which recurred in quite a few other instrumental combinations. The horn is especially present in this movement in both supporting and starring roles, and the work of principal James Sommerville was a special pleasure. Shortly before the end of the movement the strings expanded the main theme outward in a climax—one of the rare times in the two inner movements when the dynamic rose above piano. Then the music subsided and once again finished quietly. The final movement began with a soft and mysterious murmur in the low strings and bassoon which came across with clarity notwithstanding. The “uneasy” string theme of the second movement briefly reappeared before an abrupt jump to fortissimo and the development of the previously mysterious opening theme. The cellos and horns combined to contribute a rich, bronze-hued second theme. Later, over turbulent triplets, the movement built to a stirring climax with the reentry of trumpets and timpani not heard since the first movement. Finally, the music gradually calmed down again as melodic material from the first and second movements reappeared. On the final chord, the strings dropped out altogether and we were left in the luminescence of a serene and perfectly tuned F major chord from the winds. The release might have been a magical moment of transcendent peace but for an eager beaver in the audience who couldn’t wait to start clapping. C’est la vie. This is a particularly difficult symphony to bring off, and a standing ovation with numerous curtain calls for the maestro attested to the BSO’s success. We anticipate with pleasure Herr Masur’s return to Symphony Hall in February.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach and currently sings in the choir of Trinity Church.

17 Comments

  1. I need to say that this Brahms piano concerto did not go smooth with me. I was listening home, over FM, and after the second movement I got near bored and did not find anything better to do than to reach my laptop and post an angry blog post blaming American orchestras for placing Germanic repertoire too “stupidly-romantic”.  I guess I need to recover from what was playing today in Symphony Hall by listening Adrian Aeschbacher from 1943. It’s kind of insulting but I did blogging during the last movement of the concert. I am uploading this post to BMI during the intermission and I hope the Third Symphony will be more “Germanic”.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 22, 2011 at 9:21 pm

  2. The American Romanticism? The Third Symphony last night was in the very same key – the pretentious, showy romanticism, so frequently employed by nowadays American orchestras. It is not that romanticism is bad per say. The aversion I express is to the special version of unexpressive play, the hedge fund that has here and there sprinkled some harmonic pointers, sort of musical subconscious bumper-stickers, instantly recognized by our listeners as “the romanticism”.  Brahms sound is truly is much more interesting then to use as a platform to propagate pop-culture subliminal messages. I am sure that last night BSO version of Brahms Third would do wonderful background music in an office of some kind of hedge fund or would do a phenomenal soundtrack for TV serial but I think it shall be much more to it….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 23, 2011 at 12:02 pm

  3. It was a bad omen that concert master Malcolm Lowe played the wrong note from the piano to tune the orchestra, the orchestra laughed loudly.  Soon afterwards there were several flubbed notes from the horn section.  The soloist Nicholas Angelich also had his share of wrong notes but that was no where near as annoying as his inclination to rush and his limited dynamic range, i. e. fff.

    Comment by Bob Summers — October 23, 2011 at 3:17 pm

  4. I’m increasingly left to wonder if anyone who bothers to snarkily comment on reviews actually enjoys music at all. 

    Comment by Waldo — October 23, 2011 at 3:35 pm

  5. As heard on the radio, the Brahms concerto was quite disappointing. The opening tempo was too slow, and begged for sluggish playing which unfortnately turned out to be the case in the first movement. Angelich’s playing was quite passive,merely indicating he could play most of the notes. There was little shape or phrasing to his rendition; certainly no passion. Things got better in the other movements, particularly with Jules Eskin’s solo work in the third movement, but overall a sad performance with little that was subtle or musical. To hear a perormance which is truly exciting and the essence of musical playing listen to the 1951 performance with Myra Hess, Bruno Walter and the New York Phiharmonic.

    Comment by jonathan guttmacher — October 23, 2011 at 10:47 pm

  6. have to agree with the drift of the critiques, I was at SH. Some of the problems are surely from the crenelation, i have never seen a performer look so relieved at the finish. I have more an issue with Brahms 3,one has to like and admire Masur but I wonder if he has the vitality now to lead BSO to a more dynamic, less (remarks, above)  “corner office” performance.Compared, say to Szell, this was an average performance, with no great hearing from the horns (especially in the Concerto).

    Comment by Felix feline — October 24, 2011 at 10:49 am

  7. Myra Hess with New York in 1951? That is interesting; I can’t recall I heard it. The Brahms’s Second it tricky. It is very “easy” to play is effective but the point is what to do with these effectiveness? In my view all the best Brahms’s Second were a melt between the Fischer under Furtwangler and Gilels under Jochum. I do not like the direction Gilels took the work but everyone looks like do the same – trying to play some kind of “glycerin” version of the concerto with pretentious romantic “significance”.  Richter with his Boston, Chicago and Leningrad versions,  Pollini with his multiple attempts, Rubinstein with Chicago and Reiner, Bachaeur with Skrowacewski and London, even Backhaus with Boehm in 1939 played the same “Gilels” version of “meaningful melodisism”, effective phasing but with little sense of what to do with that effectiveness and what it all might mean. If to take the Edwin Fischer versioned and to “bleach out” from it all amalgam of faulty romanticism then we arrive to Adrian Aeschbacher. When I heard it for a first time I was shocked how with the very first bars the concerto might mean so much different than anything of the work that I heard. It just felt with some animalistic Germanic pride.  It is kind of ironic to say it about the play that took places during WW2 but it is what it is. There is absolutely nothing romantically-phony, sentimental, pretentious or embellishing in the Aeschbacher/Furtwangler performance of the work. That play pretty much had stolen my virginity how the concerto MIGHT be played…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 24, 2011 at 11:51 am

  8. JG writes: “To hear a perormance which is truly exciting and the essence of musical playing listen to the 1951 performance with Myra Hess, Bruno Walter and the New York Phiharmonic.”
     
    What do you think of the famed May 1940 recording by Horowitz, Toscanini and the NBC Symphony?

    Comment by Don Drewecki — October 24, 2011 at 1:16 pm

  9. Right now, on the New York Philharmonic website, is a streamed version of the Brahms Third given just two weeks ago, conducted by Alan Gilbert:
     
    http://nyphil.org/broadcast/podcasts/popupMediaPlayer.cfm?eventNum=2324&excludeAudio=1&excludeVideo=1&excludePodcast=1
     
    How do the two compare?

    Comment by Don Drewecki — October 24, 2011 at 1:20 pm

  10. Several days later after the concert, I still remember vividly what was in my mind after the Brahms PC2 concluded on its final notes on that Thursday evening. I expected to see some fellow audience to show certain anger on their faces. However, applauding enthusiastically, they did not convince me that they love Brahms that much. I had another way to show my love of Brahms’ music, being silent.
    I don’t agree with everything the author of the first comment said, but I shared some of the feeling. The performance of PC2 is average (not an average among great pianists) at most. It is very sluggish and boring. The soloist and the orchestra did not negotiate well and they had different statements to make. If I don’t want to be this kind, I would say the piano player was technique challenged and he did not have anything left for any structural maneuver (interpretation). The strings of the BSO did not sound great either. I was very surprised to hear the ugly sound played by the cello solo. I was so upset and could not fall into sleep as some audience members did.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — October 25, 2011 at 5:01 pm

  11. I’ve been trying to determine for myself the quality of this performance by listening to the online recording at WGBH. However, in any of three browsers, each the latest version, I cannot get the stream to play for more than a few minutes, on a high-bandwidth connection. Has anyone else experienced this? Same result, by the way, with the Ma Dvorak concerto, which one of my colleagues informed me was a revelatory performance. As far as I’m concerned, that replay feature is useless.

    Comment by Vance Koven — October 27, 2011 at 11:42 am

  12. Poor Vance- You should get a PC instead of your beloved MAC. Both streams to which you allude sound excellent through my 3 MB DSL- much better than the WCRB signal in my location.

     

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 27, 2011 at 12:10 pm

  13. Snarky Lee–I’ve been trying to do this on a PC from my office. How fast a connection does one need?

    Comment by Vance Koven — October 27, 2011 at 1:01 pm

  14. Vance writes:  “However, in any of three browsers, each the latest version, I cannot get the stream to play for more than a few minutes, on a high-bandwidth connection.”
     
    Same thing for me.  The window pops up to say “Adobe server crashed” or something like that.  Amd I’m on a PC.  I have had no problems with the webstreams of the NY Philharmonic.
     
    dd

    Comment by Don Drewecki — October 27, 2011 at 1:39 pm

  15. Gee, Vance & Don, I’m not seeing any problems on my iMac or MacBook Pro running OS 10.6.8 and Safari 5.1.1…in fact, I’m listening to Masur, Angelich, and Brahms as I type in another window.

    Take that, SL*!

    * Snarky Lee 

    Comment by nimitta — October 27, 2011 at 4:17 pm

  16. Those having trouble might check their version of Flash Player. The latest for MAC and PC is 11,0,1,152

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 27, 2011 at 4:45 pm

  17. Vance, if you do it in your office then snarky myth be not Lee but your network. Different file players suck streams in from different ports and some offices networks might not like it. Some network admins use traffic sensing firewalls , different type of snuffers and many other tools: if they detect excessive traffic coming from and to where they do not expect than they shrink bandwidth to this IP. There are many other things that they might do. In the end of the day – try the same from your home. I do understand and appreciate the advantage of listening Brahms and Dvorak during billable time but life is not always fair.

    Comment by Romy the Cat — October 27, 2011 at 5:34 pm

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