in: Reviews

November 28, 2013

Beloved Warhorses at BSO

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Rafael Frubeck de Burgos conducts Peter Serkin and the BSO (Sam Brewer photo)

Rafael Frubeck de Burgos conducts Peter Serkin and the BSO (Sam Brewer photo)

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.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

12 Comments

  1. Why is it that reviewers seem obsessed by the movements of conductors? How is it relevant to a listener? Why does Mr DeVoto, whose credentials to write reviews are composing and musicology, find it necessary to voice an opinion on the physical work required to create an aural experience. Musicologists can talk for 30 years about a piece – performing musicians have to make decisions and follow them through in a physical and practical way. So what if Mr de Burgos, a great conductor and musician, beats to his knees, up, down, sideways or not at all? Are we examining Masters in Orchestral Conducting students here and checking out their “beat patterns”? A meaningless phrase if ever there was one! This pontificating style of review is not helpful or enlightening in my opinion.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — November 28, 2013 at 9:58 pm

  2. /*
    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.
    */

    OH MY GOODNESS (may I say oh your schoenberg)
    I am getting a stroke reading this …

    Comment by Thorsten — November 29, 2013 at 10:29 am

  3. I’m beginning to find Brahms tolerable.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 29, 2013 at 2:26 pm

  4. Mark, I very much enjoyed reading this review, and now I wish I could have heard the concert (I also want to hear Chopin’s opus 2; it’s wonderful that you can call up references to this and other rarely heard works). I did wonder, like reader Johnson, why you included the description of Fruehbeck’s physical conducting style. I imagined that you were assuming we would understand this as translating into a heavy, beat-centric sort of performance–or were you saying that the orchestra ignored this?

    Comment by David Schulenberg — November 30, 2013 at 2:01 pm

  5. Listening Sat night on CRB to the Brahms as I write, boy, what a racket, clattery, groping, labored, kinda stoned-sounding in spots. Piano steely in complaint, and everything big and not hanging together. It chiefly seems to be the result of Fruhbeck’s overly broad tempos; the BSO brass, like Serkin’s hands, are having trouble keeping it together too at this pace.

    Comment by David Moran — November 30, 2013 at 8:38 pm

  6. Mr. Moran’s comments on the Brahms took the words right out of my mouth. I agree with him completely.
    Also, from our seats in the 6th row on Saturday, I watched the orchestra play the Beethoven and wondered, isn’t ANYONE up there enjoying playing this piece? Everyone looked so grim and determined, and some seemed even unhappy. Accurate and clean, yes. Enthusiastic and exciting? I couldn’t see it. I know this takes enormous concentration and the players do try to keep a professional demeanor, but isn’t it really a joy to play this piece? I’m not suggesting that the orchestra needs to sit there and smile, but at least it shouldn’t seem as though playing the 7th is a chore. I saw little interaction or give and take between the conductor and the orchestras.
    Even Serkin, in the very difficult Brahms, at one point looked up from the piano and gave a big smile and a look that said, “Wow, did I just nail that passage!”
    Apart from the performance, I marveled at the comments by Michael Steinberg in the program notes on the Brahms: “The first and second movements end in ways meant to produce the ovations they got at their early performances (and how priggish and anti-musical the present custom that indiscriminately forbids such demonstrations between movements.)” Amen and hallelujah! I was glad to see that some took those words to heart during Saturday’s performance.

    Comment by edente — December 1, 2013 at 9:20 am

  7. The Boston Symphony trumpet section played German rotary-valve instruments in both halves of this week’s concert. In general, they use rotary-valve trumpets for most performances of German-Austrian repertoire up through (and including) Bruckner: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner (but not Mahler). This has been their practice for many years, beginning in the latter part of Seiji Ozawa’s tenure as Music Director.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — December 1, 2013 at 12:33 pm

  8. edente:

    Intra-work applause: Well, maybe, but at least for chamber music it’s a bit much, to put it as nicely as possible (I mentioned this in my Jupiter Beethoven quartets review).

    Comment by David Moran — December 1, 2013 at 4:15 pm

  9. On Friday afternoon, the 1st movement of the Brahms was a drag – pokey and oddly deadened despite the orchestra’s best efforts. Yes, there might have been a little holiday hangover in the air, but I would say that the problems chiefly arose from Peter Serkin’s bizarre approach and often insecure technique. This surprised me, for I’ve heard Mr. Serkin’s every Boston appearance since the 1970s, and know him to have powerful concentration and unerring fingers. Before Friday I’d never heard him drag so, nor splatter the keyboard with so many goofs. To be sure, his is an unusual sensibility, though, often veering into eccentricity. Try as I might, I simply could not enjoy very much the way he conceived the 1st movement, and felt his concentration – usually a strong suit – hadn’t yet coalesced. As the rest of the piece unfolded, however, he, Frühbeck, and the players found more and more common ground, especially in terms of tempo, and by the Allegretto grazioso were producing quite a few lovely moments.

    On the whole, I don’t think the BSO is at its best under Maestro Frühbeck – he doesn’t seem to engage so much with them or ask of them the kind of mad precision and expressivity of which they’re capable. Still, it’s wonderful to see him take the podium, especially in light of his age and health, and his memory and vigor are a marvel. On this post-Thanksgiving occasion I felt enormous gratitude for the opportunity to see and hear him one more time at least.

    Comment by nimitta — December 2, 2013 at 2:13 pm

  10. The Brahms dragged, sagged, and never really made its case in Saturday as well. Not sure if it was the podium or the piano at fault, but the chemistry wasn’t happening.

    There was much more to like about the Beethoven. The trio was a bit too traditionally slow, the last movement was a bit too traditionally fast, but there were some lovely balances and other details to be found everywhere. If the first movement never totally caught fire, at least the 6/8 was played correctly nearly all of the time. That’s an easy thing for conductors to let slip.

    The orchestra was very appreciative of the maestro after the Saturday performance. I doubt it was the music making as such. He just seems to get along very well with the players and there may have been some subtext relating to his physical health. He looked well, but he is a LOT older than during his last stint in Boston.

    Comment by Camilli — December 4, 2013 at 5:33 pm

  11. To confirm the remarks of Moran, nimitta, and Camilli, listen to the WGBH stream of that concert:
    The opening of the Brahms is taken at a tempo of about 40 quarter-notes per minute, whereas the
    (Kalmus) score says 92.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — December 8, 2013 at 10:03 am

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