Pastoral air wafted through Symphony Hall Thursday as masterful performances from Murray Perahia and Bernard Haitink evinced the very nature of contrasting scenarios created by Beethoven and Mahler. Utopia it had to be as Murry Perahia opened Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major hushing the already quiet and expectant full house. After this surpassingly soft opening, idiosyncrasies and eccentricities abounding in today’s piano culture seemed nowhere to be found in the world of Perahia. I could hear a teacher of my mine whispering, “Beethoven is here.”
Even the Steinway itself appeared to have been designed for this Beethoven-Perahia, channeling the pianist’s range of dynamics and brining out gossamer everywhere. And so thankfully, too, Perahia had our eyes redirected to a mind that was purely on Beethoven’s matchless work. Only a little lithe lift of a hand here and there could be observed. There was one rare moment coming toward the end of the slow middle movement where both eye and ear were in a duet of sorts. With the right hand alone on the keys, Perahia brought his left hand into a conducting role allowing to be keenly traced those amazing subtleties going on in fluid tempo. Together the BSO and Perahia achieved a truly elevated state of psychological play in that interior movement, where incisively biting strings finally gave way to a persevering and persuading piano. Ironically, it all seemed all too real.
Common ground was found throughout, Haitink and Perahia matched up sharing an idealistic purview of the Beethoven concerto, conductor and pianist undeniably sanctioning bliss. Over a considerable portion of this half-hour plus composition, especially in the opening allegro moderato movement, came abundances of diatonic and chromatic scalar passages. Perahia integrated these virtuosic leaning passages into an expressive whole, all the while continually redefining and refining their meaning. Perahia played Beethoven’s own cadenzas with directness that had that in-the-moment feel that genuine improvisation can create.
From the ignited hall came standing ovations. Happily, this remarkably intimate utopia, remained intact as Perahia offered no encore.
Mahler’s much different naturescape from a young age followed. Symphony No. 1 in D Major is explicit. Unlike the sublime idyl of the Beethoven concerto, Mahler brought rustic notions, birdcalls, marches and waltzes, all in all, nature along with human nature heralded with fanfare.
Conductor Emeritus Bernard Haitink is on the cover of this week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program booklet, which reads “Celebrating Bernard Haitink’s 45th Anniversary With the BSO.” With noble baton in the right hand and tremolo-like left hand, this most revered conductor led Mahler’s hour-long first symphony. With its oft sustained pedal points or droned tones, its ostinatos or clips of notes repeated over and again, its preoccupation with a certain melodic interval that at first imitates a bird, and its reliance on repetition in general, this symphony more often than not moved at a snail’s pace.
Haitink’s eye on harnessing the myriad details in orchestration, the melodic flashbacks, and the inevitable fanfares, this Mahler really put the spotlight on the orchestra. Thursday night’s performance of the somewhat time-worn “Titan” symphony, as it is nicknamed, illustrated superior orchestral painting—tinted and blushed till it glowed. A single richly golden bass note from the harp as underpinning, woodwinds in delicately hued timbral play, and six horns standing in unison of brave brightness, these were just moments from a magnificent maze of instrumental color.
A tentative opening and an odd sound to end the second movement could hardly mar this performance. Haitink’s association with the first symphony yielded a bounty of insightful glimpses of the Mahler to come in later symphonies, where emotional depth intensifies. The final movement marked “With tempestuous motion” finally sought victory. I could not help remembering a soundtrack of John Williams.
A huge “Ooh” roiled around the hall for each individual and section, swelling finally for the entire corps. It has been a while since Symphony Hall thus erupted.