Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra treated us to three works by Sibelius, followed by a “tiny, tiny” piano concerto from Brahms on Thursday evening at Sanders Theater. For this Discovery Series event, each piece was preceded by comments from Zander, who welcomed us warmly, and indeed helped us discover hidden jewels as only such a rebellious scholar could.
Three works by the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius comprised the first half of the concert, starting with his famous tone poem Finlandia. In his brief introductory talk, Zander proposed that we hear the piece as a call to arms, a rallying cry for Finnish independence. It was a rousing performance, starting with smoldering anger shown especially in the brass, led by Donald Rankin’s tuba. A turbulent struggle, dominated by angst but also fierce resolve, ensued, giving way to a hymn led by serene strings evoking the power of hope to sustain and mobilize popular fervor. Zander’s Finlandia ended with a triumphant return of the defiant march, with subtle timpani not overshadowing the brass and strings.
The Swan of Tuonela is the second tone poem (or third, depending on which version you use) in the Lemminkäinen Suite, an early Sibelius work based on the Kalevala, the Finnish epic assembled by Elias Lönnrot in the first half on the 19th century. In his brief remarks, Zander emphasized the supernatural setting. A misty, unearthly atmosphere was established from the start with shimmering strings and Sibelius’ unusual harmonies. Peggy Pearson, best known for her wonderful oboe sound, gave us a haunted and desolate English horn swan, a hypnotic sadness answered by the somber cello solo from Rafael Popper-Keizer. Pearson conveyed the eternal, unending tragedy of the swan, hinting that its own death might have been a release, as it drifted back into the mist.
The Symphony No. 7 in C Major is Sibelius’s last large-scale work in this form, and effectively the last large-scale work he wrote. This short, single-movement work is a startlingly original piece that perfectly encapsulates his unique combination of stern iciness and warm Romanticism. Zander spoke at length before the performance to impress upon us that this work cannot be explained, only experienced in its unfolding chaos and succinct grandeur. Zander’s interpretation was personal and bold. He gave us a journey into an inner landscape of storms and unmanageable drives. Zander interpreted the work as a plea for forgiveness directed toward Aino, Sibelius’ beloved but repeatedly wounded wife, who appeared in the trombone theme at three crucial moments in the symphony. Seen as a struggle against inner demons, the rapidly shifting moods, the manic giddiness alternating with deep gloom, gave a special coherence to the work. The third entrance of the sublime trombone theme promised redemption but was followed by catastrophe. We struggle to be good, to restrain our destructive impulses, delight in the hope of release, and then it’s all over. We live in the flicker. The end, as it always does, comes before we’re really ready for it.
Brahms was joking, of course: his Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major is massive; stretched out to four movements, it requires a pianist with powerful technical abilities as well as graceful subtlety in the lyrical passages. Zander seemed to cut his introductory words short as if deciding that it had become appropriate to say ‘Enough talk. Let’s get to the music.’ ” He did, however, make two significant points. First he reminded us that the scherzo is marked appassionato and warned that it would be played that way. He then noted that the tempo marking for the cello solo that opens and closes the third movement is much faster than what we are used to hearing (it is indeed marked quarter-note=84).
After the beckoning opening horn call, HaeSun Paik replied with straightforward, clearly delineated triplets, almost brutalist in their starkness. The ensuing mood was agitated and turbulent, with an especially aggressive piano attack at the end of the exposition. Paik avoided any hint of complacency. She brought out existential angst, allowing an almost neurotic tension to build. No lasting relief was found in the passionate scherzo, as Brahms understood. Paik played with sharp attacks and strong accents in the piano, seamlessly integrated with an almost convulsive response from the orchestra. The emotional outpouring was relentless, the unvarnished emotion fully exposed, feeding on itself and ending only through sheer exhaustion.
The beautiful cello solo opening the third movement, played with depth and subtlety by Popper-Keizer, was a love song rather than the slow, soothing andante that is usually played (and you could hear the theme both in three and in two simultaneously, as Zander promised). Did it work this way? I believe so. The andante remained the pivotal moment of the concerto. The main difference was that the music did not pacify the piano but the release was found in the piano listening to itself reflectively, finding acceptance. Paik’s touch became inner-directed and a capacity for self-compassion emerged. The Allegretto grazioso finale then had a different kind of joy than we are used to hearing, filled with impish humor, and a widened range of emotions than had been possible while in the anxious state of the first two movements. The strings expressed a new capacity to move freely through worlds of textures, bringing out the subtle unity woven into the entire fabric of the score. The closing, un poco più presto, was delivered at a breath-taking speed, skipping along delightedly to a grand cadence.