Christoph von Dohnányi led a stern, powerful reading of three Romantic favorites in the Boston Symphony Orchestra subscription concert on Thursday, bringing Brahms and Sibelius firmly back to their roots in Beethoven, and bringing Beethoven to life.
The program started with Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn. One of the difficulties in performing this piece is to determine whether it consists of disconnected orchestral exercises or whether there is an overall coherence and design. By avoiding the lure of Romantic sentimentality and by emphasizing Brahms’s deep devotion to Beethoven’s musical language, Dohnányi gave the Variations discipline, force and meaning. He connected the eight variations by means of an underlying musical impulse that retained its identity throughout the profusion of its outward manifestations. Clear and distinct in Variation I, Brahms’ voice allowed itself beautiful colors in Variation II, turned sharp and decisive in Variation III, then introspective in Variation IV, edgy and anxious in Variation V. Dohnányi nicely exploited the contrast between Variations VI and VII to bring Beethoven vividly to mind: in Variation VI, as the strings accompanied the winds, a sense of contending with violent forces was conveyed, while Variation VII (grazioso) blossomed into beautiful tender pastoral colors. The Beethoven-like foreboding of Variation VIII culminated in a powerfully assertive passacaglia finale. The tension between the repeated bass and the yearning of the accompanying variations found dramatic resolution in the reemergence of the original theme, rich and sonorous.
A similar firm discipline allowed the Sibelius Violin Concerto to have exceptional expressive force. A magnificent work written in a frenzy, it is achingly beautiful, one of the great Romantic concertos, filled with emotional depth, but in the wrong hands can sound maudlin and syrupy. Notoriously difficult and structurally innovative – for instance, using an extended cadenza in the first movement as a development section—the piece embodies Sibelius’ heroic ambition to combine the scope of a Beethoven symphony with the intimacy of the late quartets to create an explosive new type of musical work.
Led by Dohnányi, soloist Renaud Capuçon played in a lean style without self-indulgence, which made it all the more expressive. Capuçon gave the first movement a passionate, emotional reading, with sharp attack and clean, crisp phrasing. The second movement, all the more lyrical for being sober, conveyed a grief reminiscent of Job. Dangerous Liszt-like temptations were firmly avoided as Dohnányi held to a Beethoven idiom of strength. Capuçon commendably kept our attention focused on the music, not himself. Consequently, the third movement came as an extraordinary emotional release, an uncompromising embrace of destiny, full of excitement and unpredictable surprises, ending with passionate keening from the violin. Responding to enthusiastic applause and multiple curtain calls, Capuçon graced us with an encore. His distinctive self-restraint brought Gluck back from the Underworld, giving the “Melodie” from his Orfeo ed Euridice unexpected emotional depth. Vide E.T.A. Hoffman’s famous comment on first hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: Music “is the most romantic of all arts…. Just as Orpheus’s lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm.”
Fittingly, the concert culminated by going back to the source with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, one of the works that inhibited Brahms from composing symphonies. As in the Sibelius, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony emerged as a response to the uncharted struggle that constitutes our existence. Dohnányi gave it a powerful reading, with firm clear lines and constant forward motion throughout. The first movement was crisp, forceful and compelling, filled with violent contrasts, sudden surges and outbursts, a feeling of being challenged by overwhelming forces. The second movement, exploratory and youthful, conveyed an illusory sense of having achieved freedom. The illusion was shattered in the third movement, pulsating with rhythm and force, leading to a very clearly-delineated contrapuntal Trio and then a harnessing, against all odds, of those irresistible pulsations in the pizzicato return. The triumphant outburst of the Finale became an exultant declaration of human resolve, turning Fate into Destiny, fear into mastery, self-doubt into joy. As Hoffman concluded at the time, “Beethoven’s music wields the lever of fear, awe, horror and pain, and it awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic.” Dohnányi reminded us that the capacity to harness violence in order to sublimate our impulses into Art, rather than to vent our violence against others, is the essence of human heroism.