in: Reviews

May 3, 2013

Warhorses from the BSO: Happily Received

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Haitink leads Znaider and the BSO (Stu Rosner photo)

Haitink leads Znaider and the BSO (Stu Rosner photo)

Normally we might be grumping a little bit about the narrow focus of a Boston Symphony program on 19th -century warhorses, as is the case this week with Bernard Haitink offering the Brahms Violin Concerto with Nikolaj Znaider and the Schubert Great C Major symphony, D. 944. After an afternoon Thursday catching a chunk of the Morton Feldman Orgy on WHRB, though, we were not unfavorably disposed to hearing just these two wonderful pieces.

We have nothing much to add to what everyone already knows about the two great pieces on the program. We do quibble, though, with the editorial decision to dredge up a 40-year-old note by Michael Steinberg on the Brahms that perpetuates some unkind comparisons between it and the Mendelssohn violin concert. Steinberg, dead since 2009, can no longer answer for these or reconsider in light of the ongoing re-evaluation of Mendelssohn’s stature. More to the point, the fact is that the Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos are outliers (perhaps along with the Schoenberg)—works that are great music but perhaps less effective as violin concertos. Calling Mendelssohn an also-ran leaves an awful lot of great violin concertos unaccounted for, from Mozart and Mendelssohn through to Dvořák, Sibelius and Berg.

Haitink got the Brahms off on the right foot with a well-chosen tempo that was slightly relaxed but far from lugubrious; that is, one that paid as much attention to “allegro” as to “non troppo.” Znaider’s entrance confirmed what would characterize his performance throughout—ruggedness in the knotty bits and tenderness in the lyrical ones. The curious thing, though, is that he had some difficulty projecting the high-energy passages over the orchestra at full flood, notwithstanding that the visual evidence showed no lack of effort. It might be that we were sitting off to the side, but that shouldn’t matter in Symphony Hall. It wasn’t that Haitink was having the orchestra play exceptionally loudly, and it shouldn’t have been Znaider’s instrument, which is the Guarneri that Fritz Kreisler played. At any rate, Znaider’s playing was impeccable and, in the Leopold Auer-Jascha Heifetz cadenza, gripping. The slow movement (kudos to John Ferrillo’s melting oboe solo) and the bouncy finale (whose theme may have been gypsy-inspired, but which is sufficiently similar to the finale theme of Brahms’s long-suffering friend Max Bruch’s first concerto that the gypsy element might have been, ahem, indirect) were by turns touching, impassioned, vigorous.

One of the many speculative origins of the universal Americanism “OK” is the phrase “oll korrekt” as a reference to the Hudson River squirearchy to whom, it was said, Martin Van Buren would refer matters of policy, awaiting their (supposedly Dutch-accented) approval. Our overall take on the Znaider-Haitink reading of the Brahms was just this: oll korrekt, everything done right—and no more. It was the sort of performance you would want for someone who has never heard the piece or who entertains fond long-ago memories of hearing it.

The Schubert that followed intermission was sort of like that as well, although there were a few more original touches. Haitink took the “slow” introduction a bit faster than average; the brass sounded refulgent. The main theme was crisp and muscular, and the overall effect was of propulsive motion, even in the minor-tinged second subject. Haitink didn’t take the exposition repeat, which is fairly typical but which, in prospect of the generous proportions of the later movements, does compromise the balance of the work as a whole.

The heart of this work is the slow movement: Schubert’s signature tactic of taking a fairly simple marching tune and turning it to wrenching pathos is nowhere better employed than here and in the E-flat piano trio. Haitink’s tempo was also slightly on the brisk side, but without slowing down made it seem slower and as poignant as it should be. Praise again to Ferrillo and to William R. Hudgins on clarinet. One unique feature of this performance was Haitink’s bringing out of the brass, especially the trumpet, in passages that are often treated as pure background. Many later 19th-century composers aspired to the Schubertian, no one more so than Bruckner and Mahler. As a great Mahler conductor, Haitink saw his opportunity and took it to show Schubert pointing forward, and made this slow movement sound actually Mahlerian; not only with the brass but with the strings after the major climax. In the scherzo, the trio was glowingly orotund (did we mention how much we liked the brass section in this piece? We can remember the days when the BSO brass section was seldom worth mentioning—brass was uncouth, something best done in Chicago). The finale, curiously, adopted a somewhat more relaxed tempo than the bat-out-of-hell pace some conductors employ, but Haitink kept the tension high and superbly tailored the orchestra’s dynamics. One possible innovation in Haitink’s rendering was the apparent stretching of the notated silence in the recapitulation (it went exactly as written, two and a half bars, in the exposition) to grand pause length. A dramatic touch, to be sure, but we’re not sure the break in propulsion was worth it.

We should mention that at the end of the concert, amid the applause for the performance, the BSO brought out on stage two retiring members of its family, violinist and sometime Pops conductor Ronald Knudsen and BSO librarian Marshall (Marty) Burlingame, who then greeted the orchestra members and shared in the audience’s approbation.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

11 Comments

  1. À propos the audibility of Nikolaj Znaider, I have an anecdote. During the intermission I happened to encounter an acquaintance whose seat is in the second balcony left, very near the stage. I asked her what she thought of the performance. She replied that she thought that Znaider played well and that he certainly had a very good instrument, but that it was excruciating to listen to as he had tuned it. Since I hadn’t noticed anything abut the tuning, I asked her to explain. She said that he had tuned his violin slightly higher than the orchestra violins, and the difference in the sound was very unpleasant. I presume that he was playing the notes at the same pitch as the orchestra — certainly to my ears, he didn’t seem to be playing sharp. But she explained that this is a technique that some violin soloists use so that their sound will stand out from the orchestra’s: even when they are producing exactly the same number of vibrations per second, violins tuned higher sound subtly different from violins tuned lower.

    If my acquaintance is right, the technique apparently didn’t always produce the desired result, but it did ruin the experience for her.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — May 3, 2013 at 6:36 pm

  2. “We do quibble … with the editorial decision to dredge up a 40-year-old note by Michael Steinberg on the Brahms that perpetuates some unkind comparisons between it and the Mendelssohn violin concert.”

    This wild shot at the BSO Brahms note calls the reviewer’s reporting and reading skills into question. It’s not from 1973, or close. And does it really perpetuate “unkind comparisons”? Online the note merely points out that Brahms “had not written a concerto since [the brutally rejected Piano Concerto 1], and curiosity was keen, the more so because there were few significant violin concertos: received opinion had it that there were in fact just two, Beethoven’s and the Mendelssohn. … Brahms would be surprised to know that his concerto has surpassed Beethoven’s in popularity (and that Mendelssohn’s elegant essay is no longer thought of as being in that league at all).”

    So unless Koven is a Mendelssohn relative, and even then, his characterization seems inexplicable. The note also is itself more reportage of received status than judgment, having been written by someone who the last 30+ years of his life spent much his time hanging out with orchestral musicians and advising conductors, and was married to an important concertmaster/soloist.

    Comment by David Moran — May 3, 2013 at 8:47 pm

  3. I was at the Thursday evening concert. Let me first say I’m not really much of a fan of the Brahms Violin Concerto. I’ve never really connected with the piece, and last night’s performance didn’t make me any more of a fan of it. I have to admit though, I’ve now heard Znaider twice with the BSO (also the Elgar Concerto with Colin Davis), and I guess I just don’t care for him as a soloist. If there’s one word I would use to distinguish his playing, the word I would use is “strident.” He has a strident sound overall, and yes, he was slightly off-pitch in his playing. He’s also visually dramatic in a manner that is divorced from the actual music (if you listen with your eyes closed for comparison, that is) and which I’ve interpreted as a form of showmanship that is his “brand,” if you will. It seems to work for him, because he got the requisite standing ovation for a performance that I did not think was memorable in any way. I think of Znaider as the Un-Joshua Bell. Whereas Bell tends to play with tenderness and beauty, often pulling you in (even with Bell’s own visual drama which can be annoying at times), Znaider is his musical opposite.

    But as for the Schubert? I guess I’ll part ways with Mr. Koven and say hands down, I thought it was a truly great performance. We are so lucky to have Boston on Bernard Haitink’s regular itinerary. The performance of Schubert’s 9th last night was to these ears one of the very best performances of anything I’ve heard from Haitink, and without a doubt the most memorable live performance of the symphony I’ve ever heard (with comparitors being Ozawa, Kurt Sanderling, and Riccardo Muti). The playing of the 9th was incredibly alive and engaged, and the orchestra was at their very best, truly making music with Haitink. What was so remarkable was the balances Haitink achieved, allowing the line to emerge clearly while also giving inner voices their due. I felt I was listening to a living, breathing work that I was hearing anew, which was incredibly alive and alert. It was stunning, and a great achievement for everyone involved. Kudos to Maestro Haitink and the orchestra, the performance of Schubert’s 9th was a wonderful end to the season for sure.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — May 3, 2013 at 10:22 pm

  4. The “slow” introduction to the Schubert is marked “Andante”, so it should move along, as it did (at least on Friday.) Like Vance Koven, I missed hearing the exposition repeat in the first movement; five years ago Haitink did play it. And the last movement benefits from being played vivace as indicated rather than presto as sometimes heard.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — May 4, 2013 at 9:48 am

  5. It is always a pleasure to have the venerable Bernard Haitink at the podium – many happy returns! – and I enjoyed his leadership in the Schubert ‘Great’ Symphony in 2008 and yesterday afternoon. I will say, however, that the most memorable rendition I can recall was in 2010, when Jayce Ogren filled in for an ailing James Levine. The orchestra was incredibly locked in rhythmically that night, creating a performance of sublime transparency, momentum, and majesty.

    As for Nikolaj Znaider, he played exceptionally well on Friday – in particular, the Auer-Heifetz cadenza had the audience on the edge of its seats, and from where I sat (6th row, center aisle) his Guarneri cut through the orchestra like a serrated knife. I appreciate Mogulmeister’s comments but for my part I wasn’t distracted in any way by Znaider’s mannerisms, and didn’t regard them as especially showy or self-branding. What earned him his SO from Friday’s venerable and richly experienced audience was a fervent approach to the music, especially the ‘gypsy’ finale, delivered with a transcendent technique.

    Incidentally, unlike some others I don’t find anything ineffective about the Brahms concerto – it certainly had an effect on me the first time I heard it live, at Tanglewood with Seiji Ozawa and Henryk Szering, and continues to affect me as I enter my seventh decade.

    Comment by nimitta — May 4, 2013 at 2:05 pm

  6. The Brahms I found surprisingly effective tonight, especially after some of the bad-tempered comments above. Znaider played very well, with uncommon flexibility. Haitink’s notion of the orchestra’s role was a bit more corporate than chamber music, but if he didn’t milk individual lines to do battle with the soloist, he did maintain excellent tempi and kept the band quiet enough to let Znaider play real pianissimo when appropriate. And Ferrillo was truly amazing in the second movement.

    BTW, the Guarneri Znaider used is not the most famous “Kreisler” del Gesu– that one is an earlier violin held at the Smithsonian. Kreisler bought and sold so many other good instruments that calling any of them “his violin” is like referring to a particular ballerina as “his girlfriend.”

    Comment by Camilli — May 4, 2013 at 11:39 pm

  7. Over the air Saturday night, Znaider was forward and steely enough that a listener in another room asked ‘Gah, who’s that?’ The Schubert otoh sounded superlative, deeply detailed a la Levine but with perhaps more oomph from the great Haitink. What a piece and performance, with those grand carousels wheeling in the last two movements.

    Comment by David Moran — May 5, 2013 at 1:27 am

  8. Fair reviews, yes he protest too little too much over the slight to the divine Mendelssohn whose fantastic music hardly needs minor proxy champions -I mean who cares what Steinberg say? As to war horses, the review post parades its own War-Horse-ism, a by now aged one … “well, I had to reconcile myself to a 19th century program.” Maybe -how’s this for novelty- we need to head MORE 19th century music! Gade,Sinding,Goldmark. Maybe what’s really tiresome-and there is some excellant contemporary composition -is another academic grant number by professor you name it that we all politely applaud at SH-and then forget about it waiting for the main course.

    Comment by Bruno — May 6, 2013 at 10:47 am

  9. I though Znaider was fine, forward, certainly, which is what the soloist in a violin concerto is supposed to be, and needs to be to avoid disappearing into the texture. Some of the best can move in and out at will (or at the composer’s will), which can be magical, and Znaider didn’t really do that, but he did move easily and appropriately between many different moods and voices each of which seemed to be at his command. I didn’t much like the cadenza, which seemed to me much about nothing, but it was well executed.

    I listened in vain for that mysterious phenomenon of the “violin tuned higher” that nevertheless produces “exactly the same number of vibrations per second”, even though the number of vibrations per second, or frequency, is also what we call pitch, which is what we are usually talking about when we say “tuned higher.” If, on the other hand, the accusation was that the soloist had actually tuned a few cents higher – which is a different frequency – in order to stand out from the orchestra, this is a charge often leveled at soloists, particularly great celebrities. Whether there is any truth in it I have no idea, but it wouldn’t be surprising – just another example of general Pitch Inflation, which threatens us all.

    The Schubert was just fine. I particularly liked the management of the transition from the common-time introduction to the cut-time allegro, which produces a sense of acceleration without any change of tempo. The last movement made me think, as always, that much has been made of what Beethoven could do with just four notes, but Schubert could do just as much, and his four are all the same note and of the same duration! Haitink was excellent in both works, and in the Brahms even made the third movement interesting, which is a challenge, because this concerto, like many, has a third-movement problem; it often seems trivial after what has come before.

    The previous week, Haitink also supplied one of my favorite moments of the season, when, at the end of the Mahler 4th, having finished conducting the orchestra, he conducted the audience instead: holding his hands high, perfectly still, for several seconds after the last sound had died, before dropping them to let the applause begin. And the silence held. A miracle !

    Comment by SamW — May 6, 2013 at 3:58 pm

  10. The more important work was performed ok. The less important work was performed well, perhaps as ‘great’ as it can be. (I don’t have to say this way. but I saw MM’s comment…)

    I think the conductor’s primary duty in conducting Schubert 9th is to make to 4th movement less boring. Haitink did fine job. Only in very few selected moments, do people observe and love schubert’s likeness to Beethoven. For the rest of the time, people admire him for his true admiration for Beethoven, as proven by those a few precious moments.

    I hope I was wrong. or it was the poor seat location to blame. Neither the soloist nor the woodwind players played anything moving in the 2nd movement of the great VC.

    Comment by Thorsten — May 7, 2013 at 2:03 pm

  11. I thought the Brahms was quite poor. I agree with Mogulmeister above: the physical play-acting was far more interesting than the actual playing, which was entirely unremarkable, even undistinguished. (I’ve heard Znaider ten or twelve times, and I have always found this to be true.)

    It struck me that Haitink was uninspired by his soloist, and simply went through the motions in a dutiful manner.

    Comment by Ronald — May 14, 2013 at 5:25 pm

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