The second series of subscription concerts during the latest conducting stint of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos began atypically on a Tuesday night at Symphony Hall because of the Thanksgiving holiday. On the program were favorite works of Beethoven and Brahms.
Brahms’s beloved Second Piano Concerto has four movements, which is unusual enough in any concerto, and these offer a wide spectrum of moods and ideas. The first movement is one of the mightiest examples ever conceived in late-Romantic sonata form, one in which the ideas are ranged in perfect succession, and yet with significant formal originality as well. (Compare the way the transitional theme comes before the third theme in the exposition and after it in the recapitulation, leading right into the coda.) The dialogue between piano and orchestra is never a struggle for domination, but a conversation of mutual and noble understanding. There is a struggle, but it belongs to the player: this concerto is one of the most technically difficult in the entire piano literature, yet it never seems like a brilliant display, and few in the audience are likely to be aware of how hard it is. (I often wonder how effectively Brahms, who never sought or made a career as a concert pianist, managed to play the premieres of both his concertos.) Any pianist who has worked on this piece knows how awkwardly written for the keyboard it is, with some passages, particularly in the first movement, verging on the unplayable.
Peter Serkin approached the concerto as thought the whole work were a long and expressive song—as so much of it really is. He has a fine piano sound even when playing Schoenberg, and Schoenberg, who adored Brahms, would have liked this performance too. Serkin was able to develop a big sound whenever called for, especially with the martellato trills and the heavy F minor passages at the end of the first-movement Exposition; from where I was sitting, it seemed as though his left hand was even more powerful than his right. He was in no way fazed by any pianistic difficulties, but his recoil from playing the heavy chords near the beginning, like a golfer’s backswing, seemed out of proportion to the effort. The quieter passages, including the delicate transition from the end of the development to the recapitulation with its high-register broken chords, came through with lovely expression. There are two instances where the hands move through widely spaced arpeggios and treacherous skips in opposite directions at the same time; Serkin slowed down a little for these. (Footnote: Chopin wrote one of his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano,” Op. 2, in just this same manner, but later deleted it.) In the Trio of the second movement, there is a passage of such insane difficulty that pianists talk about it in terms of dread even years before beginning to study it: eight bars of double octaves, marked pp and sotto voce and legato, with wide leaps, and the thumbs are two octaves apart. (The story is told that Horowitz, in a rehearsal of this passage with the Chicago Symphony, played it so effortlessly that the orchestra players all laughed.) It didn’t bother Serkin at all.
In the slow movement the piano has a dialogue with solo cello (beautifully played by Jules Eskin), and this calm scene is necessary after the stormy Scherzo. Here again Serkin projected the piano’s relatively muted role with warm expression, well suited as preparation for the lighthearted finale, which was handled with a lot of flexibility in tempo. This finale has always seemed to me somewhat of a letdown after the deep expressions of the previous movements, especially when its Second Theme abruptly lurches into the style of Brahms’s own Hungarian Dances; but that may be inevitable and necessary. In the case of the First Concerto in D minor, with the usual three movements, the finale is much more of a mighty statement.
All through the performance there was a thought in the back of my mind that of Brahms’s four essays in the concerto genre, those for piano are head and shoulders above the others, and the Violin Concerto, to my mind, is a flop—not a failure, not a defective composition, just a dull piece. (Debussy thought so, too; but his opinions are always quirky.) In the middle of writing these paragraphs, I turned on WCRB, and there was Brahms’s Violin Concerto. Now I have to recant. Brahms was a great master, even when, as I sometimes think, he had off days, and I don’t have to love everything he composed, not when so much of what he did write rates as the best of the best.
After intermission came a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and one could focus attention on Frühbeck, a venerable master of the podium who is 80 years old this year. His conducting style is much in the manner of Furtwängler and so many others—every beat an up-and-down gesture regardless of the measure, and reaching down to the knees; often the more forceful downbeat of the measure coincided with a violent upward gesture of the left hand, often to cue the brass. This style wouldn’t be tolerated as a regular thing by most orchestras today, but it certainly didn’t matter with an orchestra that knows this great work already backwards and forwards, and because the Seventh is so intensely rhythmic throughout, time-beating isn’t the most necessary thing. The famous second movement came off as a real Allegretto, as Beethoven indicated, instead of the more usual feeling of Andante con moto. (But Frühbeck did slow down somewhat in the middle!) For the Allegro con brio finale, a wild ride, it was great to have all eight double-basses oscillating between low E and D-sharp in the Coda, just before the fff climax (the first of just three times that Beethoven ever used this marking in any of his symphonies—the other two are in the Eighth). We heard some really fine solo playing as well: John Ferrillo’s oboe in the Scherzo; and the two horns, James Somerville and Rachel Childers, fearless in their dangerously high registers (A alto). I was too far away to see, but what kind of instruments were the trumpets? I could have guessed that they were wide-bore trumpets in A but I couldn’t be sure; from a distance they looked like rotary-valved instruments, but that seems unlikely.
A fine evening in all, with two warhorses, the kind that I especially love.