IN: Reviews

Lars and the Real Brahms


New Englanders certainly know how to autumn. Bursting colors, brisk walks, and tweed jackets, shifting rhythms and new patterns of light: all affect our gait and outlook, subtly coaxing both a release and a bittersweet relinquishment of summer’s hope and wild abandon.

Paradoxically, a spring-like spirit of renewal was continuing at Symphony Hall, where second-year Boston Symphony music director Andris Nelsons joined slightly strange musical bedfellows Thursday night in a perambulation through Beethoven, Brahms, and Providence native Sebastian Currier.

Currier’s Divisions, a challenging study in contrasts, began with plucked harp and low, rumbling strings, dark and foreboding, followed by a trumpet solo ending almost as immediately as it began. A swift ricochet between orchestral sections is a hallmark of Currier’s writing; tiny bits of roguish bassoon interchange with splattering bass trombone, and we walk on unstable, ever-shifting ground. Relying on a predominantly atonal harmonic palette, Currier’s forays into stable tonality further on in the piece felt earned and near cathartic. Divisions is an orchestral showpiece of cinematic design; if Elliott Carter had scored Indiana Jones in place of John Williams, this is how the score might have turned out.

As always, one wonders what connects disparate pieces on a program. Beethoven and Brahms are an obvious match, but why Currier? Especially on a subscription program weighted toward chestnuts, an inevitable sense of “eat your Brussels sprouts” comes across with the inclusion of contemporary music. Yet Currier proved a useful tour guide for the evening; with ears primed by his ever-shifting prisms of coloration, the old masters came off fresh and invigorating. The near-capacity crowd reacted positively to the composer, who came out for an extended series of bows.

Taking over for pianist Paul Lewis (a late scratch due to unexpected surgery), German pianist Lars Vogt proved a winning, if idiosyncratic soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37. Nelsons launched the orchestra in perhaps more stately manner than is typical, allowing slightly more sunshine than stürm. Modern orchestras have a tendency to skew toward the futuristic, Mahlerian side of Beethoven but Nelsons’s opening indicated this performance would classically restrain the master. (This feels appropriate for a concerto indebted in tone and construction to Mozart’s dark, magisterial Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, which Beethoven is reported to have heard while on a walk with composer Johann Baptist Cramer.)

Of late I’ve taken to a number of long, leaf-strewn walks myself, remembering that Beethoven did a great deal of his composing not at the piano but rather, on long walks through Vienna. This concerto, which Beethoven began in the autumn of 1799, carries a flavor of organic rumination set to ordered meter, particularly in its opening Allegro con brio. Long walks, of course, allow for a sustained period of thinking and processing set to a steady beat, and one suspects that this music originated perhaps not as ‘pure music’ but rather, as accompaniment for issues Beethoven was wrestling with in his personal life, including a preposterously hectic performing schedule, the belabored process of writing this very composition (which took over three years from its start until its 1803 premiere), and the first inklings of the hearing loss which would plague him the rest of his life.

Vogt’s pianistic style is characterized by sharp, sudden contrasts between a reckless energy manifesting in a deliberate, heavy and harsh attack (one often “notices” Vogt hitting the keys), and an almost inaudible, impossibly quiet pianissimo that seems to linger and suspend time. His lumbering, somewhat inelegant physicality at the instrument, grinning and frequently stomping his left foot, suggests a wide-eyed madman hungry to consume the next bar or phrase. (At the risk of leaning on a cultural stereotype, I’ll observe that Lars Vogt seems to play the piano as one might imagine someone named “Lars Vogt” would do such a thing.) The cadenza at the end of the first movement (Beethoven’s own) featured a more organic relationship to tempo than the somewhat helter-skelter opening, as Vogt was granted the freedom to dictate subtle fluctuations sans accompaniment.

The second movement Largo in E major, with its explicit connotations of sentimental Vienna, allowed Vogt to appear as master architect; indeed, one gets the sense he relishes the process of building something unexpected in the moment. Clearly, Vogt knows this piece well enough to jet across the ocean to perform it at a moment’s notice.

The final movement, a harmonically shifting, ebullient sonata-rondo, proved the most successful in terms of organic integration between soloist and orchestra. As Nelsons drew forward confident, precision counterpoint from the orchestra, Vogt was forceful but playful, spinning forth perfect little whirlpools of melody, the famous descending stepladder melodic motive steadfast and finessed. Vogt’s fine artistry (and impressive scheduling flexibility) were rewarded by a warm embrace and standing ovation from the appreciative crowd.

As compelling as Currier and Vogt were, Brahms’s Second Symphony stood for this listener as the evening’s most satisfying bounty. Nelsons coaxed forward lush, warm, regal colors from his players, and from the very outset, one had the sense of embarking upon a real journey, as richly cinematic as the Currier. As commonplace as bread and butter for the modern orchestral player, Brahms’s symphonies often come off as stolid, ponderous and predictable; by contrast this ever-shifting, revelatory outing conveyed equal parts sunshine, breathless yearning, and whimsy.

Andris Nelsons and Lars Vogt (Liza Voll photo)
Andris Nelsons and Lars Vogt (Liza Voll photo)

It’s easy to forget how much of any given interpretation is set in rehearsal, with the conductor’s final role relegated to standing as a mere cuing system for what’s already been worked out. (Even more so the case for a piece like the Brahms 2nd, which this orchestra knows awfully well.) Thus, one pays close attention to how much “work” the conductor seems to do during the performance.

In that sense, Nelsons is particularly watchable. His command of gestural specificity extends to his entire body: at one moment an eagle with fully engaged wings; at another, deftly enveloping a closing set of fingers around the decay of a note like a magician losing a handkerchief up a sleeve; at another, slicing and carving wide swaths of air to encourage a broad, cohesive blend between sections; at another, simply relaxing his arm on the podium and allowing the orchestra to swim freely. Even with his back turned to the audience at the conclusion of the first movement, one could sense his beaming to the orchestra. [Side note to the BSO: recruit an enterprising choreographer to collaborate on a cross-organizational production of dancers channeling Nelsons’s gestures and developing other movements inspired by them. How fun would it be to watch an orchestra perform alongside a group of dancers, all co-led led by the same conductor?]

There are gazillions of recordings of this repertoire; the only reason to hear it live is to rediscover it afresh, in-the-moment. Such triumphant and utterly enthralling Brahms made a believer of this listener.

Jason McCool holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music in jazz trumpet performance and the University of Maryland in historical musicology. Formerly a music professor and arts reviewer in Washington DC, he currently is a doctoral student at BU in historical musicology.


10 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. What a thoughtful and informed review. Thank you.

    Comment by Stephen Marcus — October 10, 2015 at 9:19 pm

  2. A follow-up on the role of conductor, post-rehearsal: I was talking with one of the players who is less thrilled with Nelsons as a music director than many of us. His comment was that Nelsons is a bit undisciplined, that he ends up asking for things that differ a lot from one concert to the next.
    That might be one of the reasons that the BSO is playing on the edge of its seat these days. It might also explain why Thursday night’s raging success felt a little more like a mis-fire to me on Saturday.
    There was much to like, of course. The Currier was very confidently and precisely played. (If it wasn’t accurate, everyone onstage was faking their approval very well.) But the Beethoven and Brahms, as well-conceived in general and as full of well-thought details as they were, might have benefited from a “take two.” It would be interesting to compare tapes of the two concerts– not a possibility, sadly, now that WGBH has shifted its shape so confusingly.

    Comment by Camilli — October 11, 2015 at 8:09 am

  3. I can understand Nelsons’ spontaneous approach can be causing nervousness with some player but from what I heard so far, those ” in and at the moment ” interpretative ideas are always conceived within a grand design based on architecture and expressive construct. Naturally this is always risky and will work differently every time. When it works, it is ecstatic and revelatory – the kind of mind-life
    changing musical experience. Playing at the edge of their seat to me is mostly a good thing, a GREAT thing. In many ways THAT is what distinguishes an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic from the rest: great players playing with total conviction, commitment and at the edge of their seat. Music making at BSO’s caliber should always aim for being an “Event”. The musicians of the orchestra deserve that kind of leadership. The key is not to exhaust the musicians and keep both their physical well being and musical spirit up and hungry over the long term. I hope Nelsons will succeed in doing that.

    Comment by Michael Chen — October 11, 2015 at 10:51 am

  4. To me the Currier piece seemed like a furious battlefield of chaos and invention, from which a reliable cadre of clichés emerged unscathed. What seemed like atonality was really just dissonance, because it was always related, by opposition, to the tonality to which the work repeatedly returned at points of crisis. The real point of reference is Wagner, not Carter; the interest is in finding new pathways to a conventional resolution, not in discovering a new tonal world. I don’t mean to be dismissive; deepening our sense of conventional tonality by testing its boundaries is a worthy enterprise, or method, but is fundamentally different than the attempt to discover what lies outside those boundaries.

    I thought Vogt’s tone was sterling (at times it reminded me of Gilels), and his ability to create a voice that could maintain a conversation with an entire orchestra, to comprehend the scale of the work, was estimable. The articulation was sometimes surprisingly uncertain, given the clarity of tone – some of the short, biting trills were short and biting, but barely seemed to be trills at all. At times he seemed to have some odd ideas about what Beethoven was after rhythmically. On the whole I though it was a very good performance. I also thought Nelsons took an early-Beethoven, Mozartean approach, at least in the beginning, and I think it worked well, though I wouldn’t want to see the complete triumph of a revisionist view that insists that this concerto has no part in the famous “C minor mood”, as Swafford did in his program notes; after all, the C minor concerto of Mozart that is generally acknowledged as its inspiration has a certain demonic character of its own.

    This reminds me of something odd in the program notes: at one point they refer to “Haydn and Mozart, both of whom he new personally”. The last I heard, there was no definite evidence that Beethoven ever even met Mozart, let alone knew him. Usually I would just write this off as a minor blunder, but Swafford has just published a biography of Beethoven. I haven’t read it; does it contain any new discoveries along these lines ?

    Comment by SamW — October 11, 2015 at 12:08 pm


    Well-divided over the famous Jahn ‘good authority’ mention, Grove going one way, Solomon the other.

    Comment by David Moran — October 11, 2015 at 1:33 pm

  6. Cliff Eisen’s edition of Herman Abert’s massive revision of Otto Jahn’s biography of Mozart gives an amusing encapsulated history of the course of musicological revisionism on this question. Jahn tells the story in all its children’s-book, Lives of the Great Composers naïvety; Abert relegates it to a footnote, but adds his own note generally approving of the story, with some reservations; Eisen then adds a note to Abert’s note, saying “there is no unequivocal evidence that Mozart and Beethoven met; modern opinion discounts the possibility.” Thus we have Eisen’s “modern opinion” vs. Jahn’s “good authority”. Glad they cleared that up.

    Comment by SamW — October 11, 2015 at 11:08 pm

  7. It will never be made unequivocal, it seems.

    \\ there seems little doubt that he met Mozart and perhaps had a few lessons from him

    \\ … [Beethoven] returned home in a state of despondency … perhaps over a rejection by Mozart, who was preoccupied with his own affairs … and may not have been able seriously to consider taking on another pupil, even one of great talent and backed by eminent patrons.

    Comment by David Moran — October 12, 2015 at 12:05 am

  8. Nelsons said he was too young for Berlin.
    I say he is too good for Boston.

    The orchestra once again betrayed the music by ruining the opening statement of Beethoven PC3 (Thursday night). Some woodwind choked. Not believing Paul Lewis would give up his curly hair, I soon realized that it was Vogt on stage. I didn’t feel too disappointed, since I did not like PL’s sonata CDs much. A couple of things hilited Vogt’s style. The ending of the first movement was played like transcendental etudes, jumpy and frivolous, the playfulness and lightheartedness not matching the music. There was sth like that in the third movement too. In second and third movements, there were artificial large dynamic contrast in sound volume, which the music does not call for. BTW, Boston audience completely ruined the 2nd movement, because they had too much noise to make. This movement is the innocent voice of this noblest and purest mind above all human beings.

    Brahms 2nd performance demonstrated that if tightly controlled, what splendid music scene could those instrument players bring to life. I was in extreme pain and despair after the second movement (that was this movement depicts and Brahms’ genuine intention) and I almost collapsed in my seat. Having been to many concerts, I knew that was rare artistic experience. The last 2 movements were not approved by my taste. But that was still acceptable.

    Currier’s work is mediocre film music at best.

    Comment by Thorsten — October 12, 2015 at 11:59 pm

  9. I enjoyed this review more than most of the musical commentary I read.

    Nelsons is, indeed, a dancer on the podium, but, as a transplanted New Yorker who suffered through the excesses of Leonard Bernstein, I never get the feeling that Nelsons is doing anything to attract attention to himself. It seems to me that he is acting out the music for the orchestra. The greatest conductor I’ve ever seen or heard, Carlos Kleiber, did exactly the same thing.

    Speaking of Kleiber, there is a video of his performance of the Brahms 2nd on youtube. Like his Beethoven 7 and Fledermaus, you have the feeling that he understood the music totally, and the result is simply beyond compare, in my opinion. This is the most glorious performance of the Brahms 2nd I’ve ever heard, and I grew up with the Walter recordings of all 4.

    And speaking of Nelsons, I was at Symphony Hall last night for Elektra. I strongly recommend that if you weren’t there last night, get a ticket for the remaining performance. It’s a chance to hear one of the most amazing works in the operatic repertory, and the performance was very fine. Nelsons clearly has an affinity for Strauss Though I still think that the Ozawa recording, with the late, much-lamented Hildegarde Behrens, is pretty stupendous, some of Ozawa’s best work with the BSO, as is the Solti/Nilsson recording (despite her vocal gifts, Nilsson was not always the most sensitive of singers — I really dislike her Turandot, particularly In Questa Reggia — but this Elektra is wonderful; perhaps Solti was the reason).

    Comment by Don Allen — October 16, 2015 at 9:56 am

  10. I should remind both the reviewer and some of his comment-writers that there have great conductors of Brahms (and other composers) who were conspicuously UN-balletic. The list includes but is hardly limited to Walter, Monteux, Szell, Reiner, and two sitting-down maestros, Otto Klemperer and James Levine. I say this not to put down Music Director Nelsons but rather to re-affirm that the relationship between gesture and musical result is often very unpredictable, that the ear should not be unduly influenced by the eye and that, in general, conductors of an earlier generation were able to achieve more with less.

    Comment by Dan Farber — October 18, 2015 at 3:39 pm

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