We can note Tuesday evening’s BSO concert for two Brahms performances and the world premiere of a BSO commission from Eric Nathan, a New Yorker who now lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island. Of his the space of a door, the composer noted that the title refers to his first viewing the interior of the Providence Athenæum: “I imagined the energy latent in all the countless stories, the voices of authors and their characters who live in these books, each work a portal to another world.” Bright fanfares open the space and a huge C major chord, which Robert Kirzinger reminds us, is intentional homage to a moment in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle “…where the flinging open of the fifth door reveals the vista of Bluebeard’s kingdom,” which for Nathan parallels his first sight of the brightly lit interior of the Athenæum.
The music is largely active and strong, and when not, atmospheric with occasional punctuations from brass and percussion. Nathan employed a single brushed cymbal muted by a cushion on which it rested as a kind of connecting element between episodes. The effect was almost as of a breath being taken or expelled—very intriguing, very well orchestrated. Its ultimate impression was of a stasis often populated by active tremolandi in the strings, playing in asynchronous fashion in overlapping layers and independent of one another. Under Nelsons, this spoke clearly and eloquently—a composer’s best hope for a first performance fulfilled. It will be performed again Thursday, Friday and Saturday this week.
The mighty Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor of Johannes Brahms was up next, and I’m happy to say that its performance was superb. The challenges of this early work (op. 15, from 1859 when Brahms was only 25-years-old) are manifold for everyone involved. Pride of place in difficulty falls to the soloist, who must not only possess a formidable and powerful technique but an appreciation for the several romantic conceits this harbors. In this, in every way possible, Hélène Grimaud triumphed. She was the master of all the challenges confronting her. Her affect was eloquent and heartfelt, dynamic and powerful, accurate and soulful. She could be poetic, heroic, collaborative, and profoundly sensitive as the score demanded, an ideal interpreter and performer for this thorny, storm-tossed and ultimately triumphant concerto. In the middle movement—moonlit and shimmering—she and Nelsons limned a glowing picture of repose. Readers are urged to visit Symphony Hall to hear this remarkable performance. And, four times next week, Grimaud and Nelsons will play the great B-flat Major Piano Concerto Op. 83 that Brahms wrote 22 years later. The masterful performances heard this week auger well for these forthcoming collaborations.
In a taut reading of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (1876), there was much to be admired, and some disappointment. I found the loud, brisk, forward-march feel of the first movement lacking in nuance, though beautifully played. Nelsons’s deliberate tempo for the coda, however, felt particularly apt.
The second movement was quite well conceived, yet the softer moments were again too loud. Where were those really gorgeous piani and pianissimi heard so tellingly in the earlier concerto? I was pleased to hear a couple of moments of portamenti in the strings, which helped lend an old-world character to the BSO’s playing, as did Nelsons’s clearly indicated and appropriate rubati. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s solos were ravishing at the movement’s end.
The symphony’s light-hearted third movement came truly grazioso, free and flexible, with excellent dynamic terracing and wonderful give-and-take between the players. Bosky woodwind color wafted airily from Principal Clarinet William R. Hudgins and John Ferrillo, Principal Oboe.
The introduction to the fourth movement is thrillingly innovative. The tempo mark is Adagio. Two slow crescendo approaches to full-orchestra fp marks are followed by string pizzicattos marked stringendo molto (quickening greatly). All these were played flawlessly without a hint of indecision. A restless few seconds of rushing strings pass portentously, leading to a dramatic timpani strike and roll marked ff diminuendo, forcefully played with his usual panache by Timothy Genis. Brahms then scores a thrilling set of horn calls set above muted violins and violas playing atmospheric tremolandi as diaphanous accompaniment. If this were not enough, a solemn chorale is intoned by trombones, horns, and low woodwinds, all of which sets the stage for the noble C major legato theme played by unison violins and violas that has become one of the composer’s most cherished and remembered melodies.
Nelsons led with full confidence and ideal tempi, inspiring the orchestra to play familiar works in a refreshingly clear-eyed fashion, illuminating detail and bringing forth all the drama and excitement which so pervade this final movement. This clearly thrilled the audience, and perhaps a few of the players. In sum, a terrific evening.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 37 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 45 years.