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Madness, Heroics, Fiddlers Two at the BSO


Gidon Kremer, Martha Babcock and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (Stu Rosner photo)

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.


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

  1. Tom, thanks for the write up.

    In the past, when Friday concerts were broadcast, it was always an opportunity to “preview” the upcoming concerts on Friday and to hear them at “full glory” on Saturday. Nowadays, the BMI reviews posted on Saturday morning, if not serve the same purpose, but at least give “some” idea about the events in Symphony Hall. I hope BMI would extend this tradition and to post reviews from multiple authors and with multitude of opinions.

    Tom, you wrote: “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.”

    This is a big question, however if you would like to participate in another “spectacular experiment” then you might try to attend tonight concert.  If we get very lucky (no matter how pervert it is) then tonight whether will turn very ugly, the forecast do promise it so far. If so, then there a chance that attendance in Symphony Hall might turn low and if so then we have a great opportunity to hear very different Sound. When Symphony Hall filled up just with 50% of listeners and they sit at their original random locations then Sound in Symphony Hall tend to be orders of magnitude more interesting: less dry, harmonically richer, with longer decay but more meaningfully-loaded transients. These Strads and Amatis, from great distance in semi-empty hall and with randomly placed visitors, sound nothing like in filled-up Hall. Also, people tend to have more acoustically-observant clothing during bad weather and if they sit not too close then it creates unique acoustic condition that hugely beneficial for Sound. It is not only string. The woodwinds and brass that in my view sound too one-dimensional and non-sophisticated with BSO in the semi-empty hall pick up some brilliance, vividness and loosing the celebrated BSO dryness and flattens. So, let the New England to be New England and give us some god bad whether tonight.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 29, 2011 at 11:20 am

  2. Is there a chance that any of this year’s conductors will split the violins? It was nice to have that so often during the Levine years.

    Comment by Ed Dente — October 29, 2011 at 11:20 pm

  3. The Ein Heldenleben that BSO played last night was insultingly beautiful. It was probably the best Ein Heldenleben I heard from Boston and probably the best conducting that Frühbeck de Burgos did with BSO. I generally am not too anal-retentive with picking minor bugs of individual instruments – anything might happen during live play but the whole work, as the performing event was nothing short of phenomenal. BSO, in my view, hit very right balance between expressivity, intensity and smartness – so difficult to do with this work, and they held that balance the whole piece, riding the Strauss music with very atypical for today’s BSO eagerness and passion. What absolutely thrilled me was that the precision-phrases, that the work is so filled up, were played precise but VERY smartly “defused”. The exactness of the play was there but the whole Sound still gave some room for perceptional interpretation. They played the Ein Heldenleben in away the invite listener to be a participant of the “game” instead of to making a listener an observant of the “game”. This is VERY hard to accomplish with painting complex orchestral sound, I guess my atypically-deep bow goes to Frühbeck de Burgos…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 30, 2011 at 10:56 am

  4. Richard Strauss (6/11/1864 – 9/8/1949) was born almost 8 years after the death of Robert Schumann (6/8/1810 – 7/29/1856).

    Comment by Petros Linardos — October 30, 2011 at 9:38 pm

  5. Thanks to Petros Linardos for pointing out the error in chronology. It was duly acknowledged and corrected.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 30, 2011 at 10:26 pm

  6. Yep, right as usual, Romy. Some of the best conducting from Frubeck de Burgos, also in the  bugbear of the Schumann Concerto, an impossible work,in my view, that Frau Schumann and friends,given their  context, were correct to suppress at the time. (Schumann’s late aesthetic is much more beautifully and craftily embodied in the violin/piano sonatas ,of which again, happily, Kremer is a great advocate.)

    Comment by FelixF — October 31, 2011 at 9:02 am

  7. Apologies on the death and birth date snafus. That’s what happens when someone leaves his day job to write something with a deadline in a new field of inquiry! Had these been two docs, I’d have gotten it right….

    Comment by tom delbanco — October 31, 2011 at 4:28 pm

  8. there are two things

    I had to admit that I have not paid much attention to Schumann VC before, but I agree that it is detrimental to his reputation.

    deBurgos’ Heldenleben was orchestrated in a color that was neither heroic nor beautiful. I don’t know which one is worse: this one or last years’ misinterpreted Brahms No.2.
    I did not attend the regular performance. instead, I went to the open rehearsal.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 1, 2011 at 1:48 pm

  9. Just listened to Heldenleben online — for which I am grateful.  Fruhbeck’s performance was as sluggish as the one he conducted at T’wood two summers ago, and had a major gaffe in the opening section by a wind and a string player.   Lots of reverb in the audio, too.  And can’t Ron della Chiesa discontinue his membership in the Department of Redundancy Department by prereading his notes, trimming the excess, and start referring to the conductor as “Rafael Fruhbeck” instead of always “Rafael Fruhbeck de  Burgos”.  I mean, we don’t refer to the BSO commentator as “Ron della Chiesa de la Boston”,  do we?

    Comment by Don Drewecki — November 1, 2011 at 2:47 pm

  10. Don,

    Maestro Frühbeck is the one who gave himself the monicker “Frühbeck de Burgos,” whereas neither della Chiesa nor anyone else (until now) had given him the “appellazione di origine.”

    Still, it would be good for him to occasionally give (or “occasionally to give”) the family name without the city, just to help people learn that “de Burgos” by itself is not the maestro’s name. To me somehow when the first name is used, the fuller version of the name feels called for. Thus “Rafael Frühbeck” feels wrong. But without the first name, the short version seems okay to me. So to speak of “Frühbeck” or “Maestro Frühbeck” feels kosher.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 1, 2011 at 4:14 pm

  11. BTW, Ron d C. has begun to improve, but it used to be annoying to hear him pronounce Burgos as if it were spelled Bergos, giving it a Continental pronunciation: “bare-gos.” But that’s a minor point. I like him, and I’m glad he’s the announcer for the BSO concerts.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm

  12. *** deBurgos’ Heldenleben was orchestrated in a color that was neither heroic nor beautiful.
    Thorsten, this is very interesting comment. I kind of agree that deBurgos’ Heldenleben was neither excessively heroic not superbly beautiful but it would not be the end of the sentence. The play did not have that “heroism” and did not have that firework of spectacular colors. However, it had (in my view) a very smart balance of everything in place and expressed in right amplitude to push the ball rolling. If BSO try to go a bit fancier into colors or more aggressive into enunciation of attitude then they might very much kill it and Heldenleben would turn out to be just another Ozawa-like notes rendering. Instead deBurgos hit that prodigious point when the appetite to gourmet food has been already aroused but the pile of crappy cheeseburgers was not brought out yet….  They kind led the show, demonstrating the path to the meaningfully “within” instead of the showing off the superficial façade of Heldenleben. This was very smart move for Frühbeck de Burgos.  I think Mr. De Burgos  very much knows the true answer to the semi-foolish question that Brian Bell keep asking him ( and any other guest): “ Tell me how great BSO today?” Frühbeck de Burgos very smartly did not take BSO where the today orchestra has no strength but instead he used the best from what is available. Was it intentional or accidental is absolutely irrelevant but it did deliver very good result in my view. Neither heroism nor the beauty was not expressed by was greatly implied and it was very intriguing AND … very heroic and beautiful.  I personally much prefer that implied meaning to the expressed meaning.  That desire for “complete expression” is something that always annoys me in Mahler and I do not care too much if all cards are on a table… I think the BSO did phenomenal Heldenleben, exactly how I would like to hear it.

    Comment by Romy the Cat — November 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm

  13. BTW, since the concert took place I was listening the Heldenleben5 more times and can’t get enough of it. It is despite that before I was sick from any more Ein Heldenleben hearing.  In fact on Saturday night, right after the concert, the power went out in my neighborhood for almost enter day. I have my stand-by generator but my playback was not powered from it. So, deep at night I was running power lines to my playback with only one objective – to hear the THAT Heldenleben again. What the treat!!!

    Comment by Romy the Cat — November 1, 2011 at 5:04 pm

  14. Romy is right!  This was a a superb Heldenleben, one for the record books.  Last night RFdeB and the BSO outdid themselves.  The brass, and especially the orchestra’s immensely gifted concertmaster Malcolm Lowe were at they very top of their game.  But, so was everyone on stage last night – the woodwinds, the percussion, and the BSO’s fabulous strings – what a night they all had.  While it may be heretical to some, why doesn’t the BSO just go ahead and sign up this world-class conductor right now?  The orchestra ALWAYS plays beautifully for him, his repertoire is vast and deep, his high-minded approach to music-making is unimpeachable.  He is a true old-world musician steeped in authentic tradition, something that is increasingly rare.  He’s not a hot-shot young man, it’s true, but he conducts with great energy and love every time he mounts the Symphony Hall podium.  His rapport with soloists is a joy to observe – the give-and-take last night between him and Gidon Kremer was obvious and salutary.  RFdeB’s regular visits to Boston and Tanglewood have been consistently rewarding.  If he isn’t interested in being considered for Music Director, which would be understandable, I surely hope the BSO Management would offer him a Laureate position such as has been bestowed on our other great world-class visitor Bernard Haitink.  Whatever happens, we should be sure that Boston remains a welcome home away from home for him.

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — November 2, 2011 at 11:23 am

  15. Joe writes: “…“Maestro Frühbeck” feels kosher….”
    I agree,  But, I mean, how many times must Ron della Chiesa de la Boston say “Maestro Frühbeck de Bergos” instead of simply, Maestro Frühbeck?  Doesn’t Ron occasionally read the Globe’s reviews of concerts?  Two or three times per event is enough.  The rest of the time Ron could simply say “Maestro Frühbeck.”  Also, didn’t Brian Bell once ask him about his name in a radio interview some years back?
    Romy wrote: ” Instead de Burgos hit that prodigious point when the appetite to gourmet food has been already aroused but the pile of crappy cheeseburgers was not brought out yet….”
    Well, I guess we heard different performances.  I thought this was just as slack and distended as the one I personally attended (and wasted my money on) at T’wood, and there were several major slips in the BSO’s playing beyond the opening.  Very disappointing.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — November 2, 2011 at 11:25 am

  16. I should clarify that the performance I attended was last night, Tuesday, November 1st.  I did not hear the earlier broadcast, nor did I hear the T’wood performance that disappointed Mr. Drewecki.  There was certainly nothing slack or slip-strewn last night!

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — November 2, 2011 at 11:29 am

  17. Don — I think it was that interview which gave me whatever understanding I have about Frühbeck as the family name and de Burgos as his own personal add-on. I don’t recall if he uses it just so people won’t think he’s from Germany or if it’s also a tribute to his native city. I think it’s the latter. But either way, he’s a Frühbeck. Unfortunately most Americans just can’t seem to shake the idea that the last capitalized word is the family name (along with any preposition of origin such as de or von).

    The same thing happened to the name of Boston’s first Catholic bishop, Jean-Louis Anne Madelain Lefebvre de Cheverus. Everybody calls him bishop Cheverus, and it’s way to late to do anything about it, but the family name was Lefebvre.

    John W. Ehrlich — I’ve felt the same way about Maestro Frühbeck ever since it became obvious James Levine’s tenure would soon end. Clearly, the expectation would be for a shorter Music Directorship than with someone in his/her 30’s or 40’s, but the appointment would be good on its own merits and would also give some time to consider the future needs under less pressure. 

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 2, 2011 at 1:27 pm

  18. Don Drewecki — It seems that Ron della Chiesa reads the Boston Musical Intelligencer. This evening before the concert I heard him refer several times to the conductor simply as “Frühbeck.” Ron, if you’re reading this, Bravo!

    Ron della Chiesa is one of the gems of the Boston musical scene. Long may he announce the BSO broadcasts!

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 5, 2011 at 11:24 pm

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