A capacity crowd packed Symphony Hall on Friday night for the fourth concert of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2013-2014 season. Local favorite and BMInt advisor Robert Levin [BMInt bibliography here] joined Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonic for an inspired account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #25 in C Major, K. 503. A much larger orchestra played Bruckner’s Symphony #7 in E Major, to equally enthusiastic acclaim, though the Bruckner frustrated this reviewer with its problematic pacing and balance.
In a recent profile [here] Levin quipped, “Nobody in Boston needs to hear me play more of the Viennese classical school or, for that matter, Bach, which I know are my signature things.” But a scan of BMInt reviews shows but two other performances of Mozart piano concertos in the past six years. I’m grateful for the chance to hear this performance last night. Levin joined the orchestra throughout with what sounded like improvised accompaniment (the score indicates no continuo part). He played repeated musical figures with his characteristic tasteful, idiomatic ornamentation. And there were terrific original cadenzas in the outer movements. The first movement cadenza combined three or four motifs from the movement with Mozartian contrapuntal skill, culminating in crossed-hand craziness without veering out of Classical balance. The final movement cadenza was peppered with Beethovenian hesitations and pregnant pauses before enthusiastically sweeping into the recapitulation. In the slow movement, Levin started embellishing the piano figures from the very beginning, and made gorgeous chamber music with the Philharmonic’s winds, turning his back to the audience to keep eye contact with the conductor and wind players and deftly shifting between solo and supporting lines. And Levin bobbed, swayed, and grinned throughout with a youthful verve and enthusiasm that belied his status as an impending Professor Emeritus.
Zander drew splendid playing from the Boston Philharmonic. The orchestral ritornello in the first movement had a big-boned, old school kind of pomp and grandeur which works well for this most march-like of concerto movements. The string playing was vibrant and lush, and the wind choir played with exquisite balance. The slow movement showcased flutist Kathleen Boyd, oboist Peggy Pearson, bassoonist Ron Haroutunian, and hornist Kevin Owen, who responded with gorgeous tone, subtle gradations of dynamics and speed, and all the little things that make for great chamber music. And all of the layers of Mozart’s counterpoint came through crystal clear, providing skillful support for Levin’s pianistic legerdemain.
After the intermission, the orchestra doubled in size for the Bruckner. Many of the virtues heard in the Mozart were also present in music by this other master from the Austrian hinterlands. The string sections played with opulent, sumptuously matched tone, and each section got a chance to shine with principal thematic material (the cellos and violas at the gorgeous hushed sunrise opening of the first movement, the second violins in the recap of the first movement, the violas in the opening to the second movement). The wind section continued to play with shape and specificity, with a gorgeously handled trio in the recapitulation to the first movement and moments of heartbreaking vulnerability in the second movement.
What tarnished this performance for me was the brass section. In the development to the first movement, they started coming in too loud, with shaky intonation souring the horn chords. The slow movement features a series of four slow rolling builds, accumulating power and sweep in its mournful funeral cortege, and reaching progressively higher peaks; here, the brass drove the dynamics too loud, too quickly, obliterating the subtle gradations of strings and winds underneath and making for a fourth climax which was best experienced with hearing protection (by that time, even the apocryphal cymbals and triangle were playing too loudly). The medieval hunting party of the third movement Scherzo moved dynamically to 11 again, offering relief only with the string-and-wind Trio section. And the fourth movement was so loud that I started mentally shutting down halfway into the movement.
I’m also not convinced by Zander’s general approach to tempos in this symphony. Bruckner extended the “heavenly length” and grand scale of late Schubert, and worked in blocks of sound building to colossal climaxes in the style of an organ improvisation. Pulling off a movement of this scope takes control over dynamics, as discussed above, and a unity of pulse so that the sections hang together and each subsequent section can build on what came before. Zander’s tempos seemed unstable from the beginning. Some might call it fluid, but he seemed to speed up and slow down to bring out individual effects (a quick study of the score shows shifts of tempo between sections, but no fluctuation within a section). This made the symphony a colossal collection of impressive musical sound bites that didn’t add up to a coherent hour-long whole. To be sure, some segments worked better—the third and fourth builds of the slow movement showed a stirring accumulation of momentum and power (even if it was too loud). But it was the successful sections, and the remarkable quality of collaboration in the Mozart that made the other moments all the more frustrating.
Maestro Zander returns to Symphony Hall next Friday, March 7 with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in a work better suited to his flamboyant style, Mahler’s Symphony #5. The Boston Philharmonic returns to Symphony Hall on April 25 with Mahler’s Symphony #9.