Greeted with requests at the door to shed their clothing of as much water as possible, the audience moved from downpour to rapt attention, as Gidon Kremer and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos joined the BSO on October 27 in Schumann’s only violin concerto, a work that has never quite caught on. Only Henryk Szeryng and Christian Tetzlaff performed it with the BSO in the past, and even though Yehudi Menuhin, with its first American performance in 1937, worked hard to bring recognition to this rhapsodic, episodic, indeed meandering work in the dark key of d minor, it still generates passion on both sides of a “bring it on” versus “bury it” divide.
Steven Ledbetter, in his erudite program notes, taught me that Schumann wrote the concerto in 13 days, while fighting hallucinations that soon delivered him to a mental hospital and the terminal years of his short life (1810 -1856). Thereafter, a remarkable troika of his wife Clara, Joseph Joachim, the violinist Schuman hoped would help with edits, and Johannes Brahms deemed it unworthy of inclusion in a Schuman “complete edition,” even though it was his last work of any size. It took Nazi pride in “German music” to bring about initial resuscitation: Georg Kuhlenkampff gave it its first performance in Germany in 1937. Both of these early interpretations are recorded, with Menuhin’s performance truly revelatory. His slow movement tells you in just a few minutes why those privileged to hear him in his prime melted in his presence.
Kremer has just the right background for this work. The third movement makes many virtuosic demands, and he has extraordinary mastery of the violin. His intonation is up there with Heifetz and Milstein, bringing uncanny clarity to each note. Disagreeing with current convention, he turns often to portamento, separating legato notes with breaks in his bowing that bring attention to each note, yet he magically maintains a long line. And he delights in dropping way down, inviting both the orchestra and the audience to strain to hear the music and benefit thereupon.
While the violin solo stays on the right side of excessive repetition through some glorious melody and just enough variation on a theme, the orchestration isn’t so happy. There’s some galumphing, so different from the Schuman symphonies, perhaps reflecting his lack of attention, whether from limited time or hallucinatory distraction. One way to handle that is for the orchestra to play very, very quietly, and in this the accompaniment failed. I am sure the woodwinds can play more softly, and I found myself thinking that a smaller string section would have helped. So the balance wasn’t always quite right; Kremer came close to disappearing at times when the orchestra might have done so instead.
This problem was compounded perhaps by Kremer’s delight in controversy, exemplified by his recent public declarations that these days, performers’ zeal for showing off by being the fastest and the loudest all too often trumps artistry. He breeds further debate with his current choice of a violin. Among the aficionados, Kremer created quite a stir a few years ago when he cast aside both Stradivari and Guarneri violins and stepped back into the seventeenth century to play major concerti on a violin made by a forbear of the luthiers commonly viewed as producing the ne plus ultra for the solo violinist. Among the major violinists, to my knowledge he’s the only one to play a violin from the 1600s, with the exception of a few remarkable violins made after 1685 by Stradivari as he embarked on his long career. True to its characteristic construction, his Amati has a warm, mellow sheen, spectacularly displayed in a charming encore, a serenade by a Ukrainian composer, Silvestrov, that promised to be Bach but quickly had everyone guessing. But the violin lacks that silvery line and core that make the greatest concert violins cut through a hall in the magical way that no one really understands, and there were times when that was missed during the Schumann, particularly when the violin’s higher registers were called upon. Nevertheless, I was enthralled, and the slow movement was unforgettable, in large part because of the remarkable duet between Kremer and the solo cello, played beautifully by Martha Babcock.
Richard Strauss was born only eight years after Schumann died, and his final tone poem, Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40, has undercurrents not entirely different from those stirring in the dark work we heard before intermission. The Hero’s adventures are well known and much beloved by the BSO; I have heard several performances over the years, each quite remarkable. This one did not disappoint, with Frühbeck de Burgos conducting from memory, seemingly having a wonderful time leading the charge with a clear beat and warmth mixed with passion. Strauss, with his remarkable command of orchestration, gives virtually everyone a chance to shine. The second violin section played gloriously in an unusually long solo; the bassoon and English horn enjoying a particularly adventurous and raucous night, and all the woodwinds were saucy at times, close to outrageous, just as Strauss must have hoped. And then, of course, the solo violinist, Malcolm Lowe, took a central role. What an enormous and luxuriant sound he has, aided and abetted by a Strad that is a perfect partner. And he’s a true virtuoso, overcoming Strauss’s feared challenges with the greatest of ease. This was large-scaled, heroic playing; this concertmaster, reigning among the BSO strings since 1984, is a terrific performer.
So what makes the sound? The violinist, the violin, how do the two interact? Just for fun, perhaps next Tuesday, why doesn’t Kremer play the Stradivarius, and Lowe the Amati? For those scientifically inclined, it would be a spectacular experiment. But whether or not this takes place, there’s time still to enjoy this program firsthand. You won’t be disappointed.
Ed. Note: We’ve corrected the reviewer’s error in chronology spotted by an alert reader.
Tom Delbanco is the Koplow-Tullis Professor of General Medicine and Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. An avid violinist since age nine, he has particular interest in the evolution of stringed instruments from the sixteenth century on.