What looked on paper to be a bland, meat and potatoes kind of program (Schumann Manfred Overture, Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23, and Brahms Symphony No. 1), the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bernard Haitink managed to make surprisingly fresh and new on Thursday. It’s hard to imagine any orchestra anywhere matching this one for lush tone, polish, and agility. And if there’s a richer sound anywhere than that of the BSO cello and viola sections playing in octaves, I’d like to hear it.
Schumann’s “Overture from Music for Byron’s Manfred, Op. 115 was fervid, and intense. Written in 1848 – 49, the work is Schumann’s musical response to Byron’s poem dealing with guilt and sorrow, and has all the colorful language of storminess of Romantic literature. The orchestra has doubtless played this work more times than they can count, but it had passion, conviction, and drama. Haitink’s no muss, no fuss conducting style was clear, without a lot of unnecessary shenanigans, yet elicited roiling waves of sound from the players. Most unfortunately, just as the music was sinking to an intense pianissimo close, some audience member found this the perfect time to cough triple forte. It didn’t destroy the moment, but it was annoying.
Maria João Pires then came on to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488. Written in 1786, while the composer was in the middle of an incredible streak of productivity (he repeatedly interrupted the composition of Le Nozze di Figaro to toss off a one act singspiel, The Impressario and a string of three piano concerti, of which this is the middle one). This beautiful, chamber music-like work featured some lovely solo winds, and delicately articulated string playing. As a whole it had the lightness and sweetness of champagne bubbles. Pires’s playing was confident, lyrical and received a well-earned standing ovation.
A surprisingly brisk and delicate rendition of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68 crowned the evening. It is well-known that Brahms felt the heavy shadow of Beethoven over him for much of his life, delaying the writing of his first symphony until he was in his early 40s. The resultant work, with its pounding timpani representing the hammer of fate, a glorious continuation of German symphonic tradition, justified the hesitancy. Ofttimes Brahms is rendered ponderously with the density of fudge, but Haitink took all the movements at a considerably faster speed; melodies and countermelodies flowed and swirled into each other with an almost Mozartean defiance of gravity. It was an intriguing argument, which worked. Lending clarity to
Brahms’s ropy counterpoint, it made a surprisingly good complement to the earlier piano concerto. The real bite in the articulation of the menacing viola section interjection in the first movement, the crisp conducting of Haitink and the intense pizzicato unison section, the glorious horn section in the dramatic moments, and the exquisite concertmaster/principal horn duet, all stood out. Surely we have one of the finest horn players on the planet in James Sommerville. Overall, a glorious concert, demonstrating that even warhorses can be revelatory with the right hands pulling the reins.