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.