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Weighty Rachmaninoff & Lyric Beethoven at BSO


Jaap van Zweden, conductor with Emmanuel Ax (Stu Rosner photo)

One new face and one familiar face appeared in front of the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday evening (an unusual day of the week for the first program in a subscription series). Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden has performed at Tanglewood with the orchestra, but this was his Symphony Hall debut. He has been the music director of the Dallas Symphony since 2008 and has an impending responsibility as music director designate of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, where he begins his full duties in September. He offered a program consisting of two works: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Opus 19, from the height of the Classical period, and Rachmaninoff’s large, long, and lush Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27, from the closing years of the Romantic era.

The familiar face belonged to long-time favorite Emanuel Ax as the soloist in the Beethoven.

It was unusual to begin a subscription program on a Wednesday night. The normal pattern, established decades ago, was to begin on Thursday evening, continue on Friday afternoon and Saturday evening; then, if the program were to include a fourth performance — what were once the Cambridge series of concerts at Harvard but have long since moved back to Symphony Hall — it would take place on the following Tuesday.  The unusual arrangement this week does not foreshadow a major change in the arrangement of concerts in Boston; it came about because of scheduling difficulties next Tuesday, so last night became a de facto “Tuesday” for subscribers.

Beethoven’s second piano concerto is less frequently performed than the other four completed and published works in this medium. In spite of Beethoven’s name embossed in the center of the Symphony Hall proscenium, and the role of his music since his own lifetime in inspiring music-making in Boston, the Opus 19 concerto did not enter the Boston Symphony’s repertory until 1948! And even then it was not in a subscription series, but a run-out concert in New Haven. Since then, of course, the concerto has been performed many times, and its presence always fascinates because it gives a view of the young composer confronting the models of his seniors and matching himself against them.

Beethoven’s second concerto is his most Mozartean; surely he had Mozart’s final concerto, K.595, in mind as a specific model, because his is not only in the same key, but also calls for the same relatively light orchestral forces, with no clarinets, which otherwise had become a standard component of the orchestra. And despite the lightly “military” touches in the main theme, it is also quietly lyrical for much of its course, both in the first movement and especially in the evocative slow movement.

Emanuel Ax’s lyricism has long been one of the most significant characteristics of his playing, along with his clear textures that allowed Beethoven’s writing — whether in the heart of the concerto or the cadenza — to make its effect most expressively. Jaap van Zweden was light on his feet with this concerto, leading a reduced orchestra in a lithe performance, clear-textured, but shaping the lines with accentual stresses to enliven them.

The Rachmaninoff symphony is a different matter. Very fully scored, it seems to emerge, darkly, from the bowels of the earth, and van Zweden began with a weightier approach, physically speaking, as if pulling the dark opening up into the light of day. During its hour-long course, the symphony passes through many different textures and moods, all of which the conductor educed with wonderful effect. The textures are often densely contrapuntal, with thematic figures from the opening motto, or hints of his favorite tune, the Dies irae, or the particularly gorgeous “love theme” that gushes forth a few times in the slow movement (reappearing as an internal counterpoint).  For all this dense activity, the playing was arresting and expressive but clean in a way that allowed all those motivic figures to irradiate the sonority. For newcomers to the piece, it is a “long sit,” but the better one knows the work, the more there is to recognize and respond to, and this performance gave this listener many such delights, of which William R. Hudgins’s elegant performance of the long-breathed clarinet solo in the slow movement — which seems almost to come to a standstill as it hovered gently, gradually rising and falling in a long arc that felt as if it were being invented on the spot — deserved special notice. The brilliant gradual pile-up of descending bell-like scales in many different tempi at once that brings back the main theme in the last movement is another. The shapely and richly colorful work of this composer, who twice almost became the music director of the Boston Symphony, offered wonderful warmth for a cold winter’s night.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.


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

  1. I realized after seeing this posted that I keep referring to Opus 19 as the “second concerto”, which refers only to its publishing number. I had intended to mention in passing (as program notes always do for this work) that the so-called Concerto No. 1, Opus 15, was composed after Beethoven finished the “second,” but the composer allowed the later work to be published first.

    Comment by Steve Ledbetter — February 9, 2012 at 6:43 pm

  2. The program makes no sense at all. Why do they want to put those two pieces in one concert?

    Ax’s PC2 is so so. his schubert encore is so so too.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — February 9, 2012 at 10:51 pm

  3. On Thursday, I thought Ax took the second movement too mf. I like my Beethoven concerto slow movements mostly piano. (Oh well, if it had been played quieter, we might have gotten the “bored to tears” coughing from an audience who were actually pretty well behaved.)

    In the encore, Mr. Ax did manage some nice piano bits, but I was not enthralled, as I sometimes have been by the piece.

    All in all, my feeling about the concert is as I said on facebook: “It was okay!” (The exclamation point raises it above the category of “disappointing” which would be conveyed if there were a mere period at the end of the sentence to a level of “good, satisfying, pleasant, worth hearing, but not outstanding.”)

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 10, 2012 at 12:58 am

  4. I attended only the rehearsals on Tuesday, where for the Beethoven the first and second violins numbered ten or eleven each, plus ten violas, hardly a “reduced orchestra;” nor were the violins bilateral.  Their sound seemed too plush for this work.  I’d also have preferred the piano lid lowered, or even removed, so that the woodwinds could project into the hall rather than into a baffle.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — February 11, 2012 at 11:56 am

  5. Marti’s right…on Thursday night the Beethoven had a rather boringly uniform sheen. Ax’s encore of Schubert’s Impromptu op. 142 no. 2 was also rather lacking in personality despite Ax’s wide dynamic range and technical perfection.

    The Rachmaninoff Symphony no 2 sounded neither Russian nor romantic- it was surprisingly austere. Maybe this was a post modern interpretation.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 11, 2012 at 3:19 pm

  6. *** The Rachmaninoff Symphony no 2 sounded neither Russian nor romantic- it was surprisingly austere. Maybe this was a post modern interpretation

    I did not know how it sounded; I will be hearing it only today. Still I do not feel that sound the BSO demonstrates nowadays makes it particularly suitable for Rachmaninoff Second Symphony. The BSO under Munch would the orchestra to take assault on the Rachmaninoff Second.  They had a good mix of tonal plasticizm and expressive virility to make the Rachmaninoff “interesting”. Well, will see how it goes today… It is nice to have the work in town a second time after a few month…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 11, 2012 at 3:59 pm

  7. I just heard the Rachmaninoff Second by Jaap van Zweden and BSO over WCRB. It was an interesting play. As the symphony opened up I violently did not like it. In fact I almost did not recognize, it sounded to me like that blended Rachmaninoff Fifth Concerto. Mr. Zweden made Rachmaninoff to sound like weepy Sibelius with intellectual “load of” Ludwig Minkus ballets. BSO played well but they played just wrong music, very much not what I expected from the symphony. After a few minutes I said “come on, it is too boring” and went to make for myself a prosciutto sandwich. As I came back to my listening chair and BSO proceeded to the second movement I begin to feel that what Zweden did had begun to grow in me. I got use to the “lightness” of the Zweden’s interpretation and some kind of “Boston Pops” style of sound. If do not demand too much of seriousness from the symphony and do not anticipate the Eisenstein-like montage of the Rachmaninoff’s melodies than what Zweden did was very lucid and in fact very beautiful. At time it was wonderful and I in fact truly enjoyed the rest of the symphony. It was not 50 pounds hammer that you hold with all your strength and drive down 10” nails. It was rather .5mm brash that you hold with two fingers and retouch something very minute and insignificant.  In the end what I like in the whole Zweden’s ceremony that it was very light and non-pretentious.  It is very easy to play Rachmaninoff with pretentious significance and it is great if you are able to express the significance and weight. Mostly however people do not have it or do not do it and their Rachmaninoff sound foolishly-pompous. Jaap van Zweden in my view did not have with his BSO play that significance and weight and he smartly did not go for that “full meaning” of the Rachmaninoff’s work. Was it intentionally or not I do not know but it was what it was and it is good for everyone that it was this way. In the end I fell it was very balanced play, easy come and easy go. Now I need to buy some Zweden’s CDs to see how he deals with Bruckner – I hope the Scherzo from 8th symphony will not sound like a waltz…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 11, 2012 at 10:31 pm

  8. Romy, there was an interview of van Zweden by Brian Bell that they played during the intermission. The conductor indicated that he was taking a different approach to the Rachmaninoff than others had, but I didn’t catch exactly what he was saying, because Iwas having dinner with my brother in the other room. But I’ll be interested to get your reaction to the first movement if you listen to the rebroadcast — also what you think of the way he and Ax and the BSO did the Beethoven.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 11, 2012 at 11:05 pm

  9. Joe, I got home during the intermission, just before the second part.  I did not listen the Beethoven and the PC2 is not something that I particularly strive to hear. Regarding the first movement: I do not think that my reaction or opinion is important as in my view anything that is possible to say about it has been already expressed in the file I uploaded for you. Pay attention how the orchestra goes for very essential core of the themes and subdues all superfluous embellishments.

    BSO was able to do in 50s…
    Rgs, The Cat

    Comment by Romy the Cat — February 11, 2012 at 11:38 pm

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