IN: Reviews

BSO Opens Brahms Mini-Festival


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.

Andris Nelsons and Helene Grimaud
Andris Nelsons and Hélène Grimaud (Winslow Townson photo)

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.


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

  1. It’s so comforting to turn to The Intelligencer and be reminded of a world of grace and beauty. Last night, Eric Nathan’s wonderful voluptuous piece enchanted! Ranging from the brightest colors to the tenderest tones. And the eloquent title, The space of a door, helped us to hear a realm of wonderment, understanding and mystery. So thankful to have discovered this composer and to have heard it performed with such elegance and sensitivity.

    Comment by Ashley — November 11, 2016 at 7:25 am

  2. I heard “the space of a door” Friday afternoon. My plea to the Music Director and the Artistic Administrator is, “Let it not languish on the Library shelves.” Programs are “subject to change.” Change one so we can hear it again this year; and if next year is already planned, revise the plans and play it yet once more.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 11, 2016 at 6:08 pm

  3. It is irresponsible for BSO to squeeze a new piece into Brahms celebration. the PCs and symphonies are already long.

    I felt like the slow movement was endless and the first movement was even longer than its massive size. I enjoyed the Grimaud’s piano entry, but I did not quite find the deeper feeling in the slow movement. I may get their CD later. I think I may find it even slower on CD. I am in favor of their performance, but not with certainty.

    I was spiritually more engaged with 1st symphony. There might some similarity in the performance style. The 1st movement might be slightly not terrifying enough, because of its broader pace, as in pc1. in the 2nd movement, the 2nd paragraph of oboe solo was rushed. concertmaster made an uninvited pulse at the closing, even tho audience still gave him standing ovation. The 4th movement was very satisfying and adequate.

    I am very disappointed by my poor physical and spiritual state in the 2nd concert. Partly, I blame BSO for making the concert too long with an unnecessary filler, which drained my concentration. I listened to Nelsons’ B2 last year, but I was not able to follow the music in the same way this time because of my own problem. But I did notice he added more accents to some places where he wanted to emphasize. Mostly I agree, but there are placed in 2nd and 4th that made me feel like too much.

    BSO management must be deaf. I am very angry actually. For a few years, there is electronic device singing high pitch consistently from the left side of the hall. Last night, it almost loudly served as a member of a ghost woodwind group. That sound has always existed and no one has done anything about it for years. yes, the audience is making noise anyway and that sound may help some sleep better. But please, fix it.

    (Thu and Sat)

    Comment by Thorsten — November 13, 2016 at 10:29 am

  4. I agree with Joe Whipple rather than Thorsten about the Nathan piece, though I am willing to wait until next year to hear it again. As for the “member of a ghost woodwind group” (a beautiful characterization – I wish the reality was as beautiful) – I don’t know if it’s the same thing, but at almost every concert I go to now I hear another example of what seems to be a growing problem, hearing-aid feedback. This problem is made more difficult by the conundrum that the phenomenon is apparently inaudible to the person responsible for it. From what I understand, a technology exists that avoids this, and the Symphony Hall management makes it available, but does not emphasize it and certainly does nothing to enforce its use (I don’t know how you would do that; monitors stalking the hall during performances ?).

    Comment by SamW — November 13, 2016 at 11:26 am

  5. A chief reason for the whine is having the aid cranked up too high, which those with advanced deterioration sometimes do but, yes, do not realize it. Turning it down fixes things.

    From the broadcast I could not form all that much of an opinion of Nelsons’s way with PC1, but Grimaud sounded just sensationally strong, with so much finger detail brought out forcefully, especially the last movement. Her youtube performance with Gielen ( seems the same: like a new Kovacevich.

    Comment by david moran — November 13, 2016 at 2:00 pm

  6. Grimaud was fantastic. Not just power but intensity, hurling herself at the music with absolute authority. She once told an interviewer “a wrong note that is played out of élan, you hear it differently than one that is played out of fear”, making it clear that she had no intention of playing any of the second kind. She doesn’t play a lot of the first kind either, though I thought I heard one last night, at one of the climactic moments of the third movement; or perhaps I had just never heard its ferocity before. How can you expect perfect consonance from a woman who lives with wolves ?

    Comment by SamW — November 13, 2016 at 5:17 pm

  7. By the way, Grimaud recorded both concertos, with Nelsons conducting, the first with the Bavaria Radio Orchestra, the second with the Berlin Philharmonic, on a single album three or four years ago. One of my favorite recordings, up there with Gilels (to whom she sounds similar, though they are temperamental opposites). I didn’t know Kovacevich had recorded them; I will check it out. Whenever I hear what I can only call the power trills in the first movement, I wonder if Brahms learned that from the ending of the Hammerklavier, which Kovacevich really nails (I believe that is the correct technical term).

    Comment by SamW — November 13, 2016 at 5:51 pm

  8. @SW, yes, for sure, she played fearlessly, as apparently she almost always does.
    I have heard the Nelsons recordings, but prefer that Gielen one referred to.
    Kovacevich did them w/ Davis long ago (when he was rhythmically about the strongest pianist ever) and then later w/ Sawallisch (I think I have that right), and they are something.
    I have never heard Gilels play anything like these guys. But there are adjudged to be three dozen top-tier reads if not more; just read Amz and youtube comments or online overviews. I, like so many of my generation, learned the piece via RSerkin-Szell-Cleveland and Fleisher-Szell-Cleveland, and while wonderful and very powerful the pianistic power nowhere surpasses either Kova or Grimaud.
    Brahms learned (stole) many other things from the Hammerklavier; and yes, ‘nails’ is the musical term.

    Comment by david moran — November 14, 2016 at 1:38 am

  9. The trills several of you write about do seem to have their genesis in late Beethoven — not only Opus 106 but also Opus 111. They influenced not only Brahms, but also (and earlier) Schumann, who alludes to them in the first movement of his Opus 17 — along with a great many other references to Beethoven. And I suspect that Chopin’s use of trills for expressive purposes– particularly in late pieces such as his opus 60 and 61 — was influenced by Beethoven’s example. With Chopin, of course, the adjective one might want to use in reference to these trills is not “power,” but “erotic.”

    In any case Grimaud’s performances of both Brahms concertos (I heard No. 2 last night) was superb. On both occasions — as on many others in the last 25 years or so — she impressed me as belonging to the handful of great Brahms players in concert halls today,

    Comment by steve wigler — November 16, 2016 at 12:32 pm

  10. @SW,
    Can you point to references for what Chopin knew (heard, played) of Beethoven and Schubert? In entries from his August 1829 visit to Vienna (gee, maybe Chopin can be labeled Viennese too :) ) at 19, nine months after Schubert’s death, no mention of Schubert is made, and it would be interesting to know about his knowledge (or lack) of Beethoven too.

    Brahms much liked that falling third thing featured in the Hammerklavier and elsewhere, not only the trills and the permuting of Beethoven’s big tune.

    Comment by david moran — November 16, 2016 at 12:50 pm

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