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.