in: Reviews

November 19, 2016

Brahms with Grimaud & BSO

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Thursday night the BSO continued its survey of Brahms’s symphonies and piano concerti, with pianist Hélène Grimaud after having opened with a first hearing of the BSO commission, Timo Andres’s Everything Happens So Much. A truly unforgettable reading of the Brahms second piano concerto reached the evening’s apex.

This week’s concerts and last, these traversal of Brahms symphonies and piano concerti, are being recorded with an eye to a possible future release on BSO Classics, the orchestra’s in-house label. The audience kindly attempted to suppress noise during the music, but the pauses between movements were a longer than usual cacophony of coughing, snorting, shuffling, and sniffling.

Born in Palo Alto and raised in rural Connecticut, Timo Andres (b. 1985) is now based in Brooklyn. A pianist and composer, at Yale he studied with Ingram Marshall, and was a Composition Fellow at Tanglewood in 2006. A frequent performer with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Andres encompasses a wealth of compositional influences and styles, engaging with the full tradition of music, canonic to contemporary, crafting works which are conversations with other works and composers. For this commission, the brief suggested “that the composers respond in some way to Brahms’s music in writing their own pieces,” as the program book has it. Andres’s Everything Happens So Much, in Robert Kirzinger’s words, “doesn’t quote Brahms directly but rather takes that composer’s technique of combining musical gestures of great potential together in tight, dynamic counterpoint.” Elsewhere Andres has quoted: The Blind Banister, his piano concerto, glosses a cadenza Beethoven wrote for his Piano Concerto No. 2; his piano quintet starts with a musical kernel from Schumann’s piano quintet; and his own piano quartet, I Found it by the Sea, reflects on Brahms. So Andres seems an obvious composer for such a commission.

In a single movement, running about 11 minutes, “Everything” is large, requiring (in sum) double winds, full percussion, harp, piano, celesta, and strings. The title is a borrowing, coming from a now-defunct Twitter feed called “Horse_ebooks” and, as a phrase, is either meaningless of profound—and that ambiguity is the point for Andres; he wrote a composition with “a surface tension to it, a kind of restlessness… things happening at different rates and which magically work out contrapuntally.” From the opening twittering of birds this score progresses to a complex, destabilizing syncopation punctuated by the rumble of bass and drum. The strings and winds build upon an unexpectedly reversed dotted rhythm. Lush melodicism with intimations of jazzy inflection move the music forward. Here I heard as much Ives as Brahms, as a marching band irrupts into the music then passes on by. A calm, neo-romantic string meditation returns. With a variety of orchestral solos, Everything Happens So Much combines solo and ensemble lines, and ends in a quieter vein, as it began, with a resolution that is as much an opening as a closure.

Hélène Grimaud  entered for Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83. First performed with the composer as soloist in 1881, the music was first heard in Boston the following year and has appeared countless times since then. As canonic as the Beethoven concerti, this one is programmed somewhat less frequently, perhaps because it places stronger demands on members of the orchestra (individual solos as well as tight ensemble requirements) as on the pianist. This stellar outing was filled with insight. I heard clearly the second movement Allegro appassionato respond to the music of Tchaikovsky, situating this composition in its place in music history. This is just one moment among the whole, indicative of the care and thought brought to this performance. Grimaud gave equal attention to the inner musical lines and the BSO responded in kind, realizing the complexity n in all its nuanced glory.

Nelsons and Grimaud from last week.

Nelsons and Grimaud from last week (Winslow Townson photo)

The third movement Andante features a large and gorgeous cello solo, one many listeners (not just in Boston) associate with the late Jules Eskin (who died Tuesday). Acting Principal Cello Martha Babcock owned this solo, bringing beauty of phrasing, replete at one point with a poignant sigh, depth of understanding, and a full palette of color. The synchronicity between Babcock and Grimaud was perfect. This second piano concerto was definitely one not to miss.

Nelsons then led the orchestra in a thrilling and a tuneful reading of Brahms’s  Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90 (1883). For all the music’s inherent excitement, I missed the careful attention to inner voices, the contrapuntal building blocks of Brahms’s compositional rhetoric. Leaping from peak to peak obscures value when the valleys disappear. While many in Symphony Hall reveled, I  left craving more.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra

5 Comments

  1. The BSO announced that Grimaud would be absent Saturday night, with the 3rd Symphony replacing the concerto. And yet WCRB is broadcasting the concerto. Wonder what’s up with that.

    Comment by Camilli — November 19, 2016 at 8:28 pm

  2. She cancelled Friday night as well. We heard the 4th Symphony (a spectacular performance, explosive playing) then the Andres piece, then the 3rd Symphony. The latter sounded very much like Cashman’s description here.

    Comment by Leon Golub — November 19, 2016 at 9:36 pm

  3. There were no obscured inner voices in Brahms 3rd Saturday night. To continue with the Prince analogy, Nelsons, as our brilliant and refined pathfinder, led us through Brahms’s noble ranges in raking autumnal light which exalted every valley and peak. Nuance conquered bombast and a great recording is likely to be on sale.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 19, 2016 at 11:01 pm

  4. In response to Camilli, Della Chiesa announced that they were broadcasting a concert recorded earlier.
    Must have been Tuesday or Thursday night; he didn’t specify. She was superb.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 20, 2016 at 6:22 pm

  5. I want to peacefully protest against BMI’s editorial decision.

    Mr. Nelsons spoke again after Saturday’s concert. In case readers wonder why, it was because a Brahms cycle has not happened for many years in BSO’s performance history until recent 2 weeks. This cycle should be the most important music event for serious concert-goers for the 1st half season. These concerts with core repertoires are the defining moments of the music director Nelsons. BMI had two reviews on Berlin Mahler, but did not even make an effort to review all 4 symphonies with consistency. It seems that 2 random concerts/symphonies were chosen at convenience. Who cares about the monumental 4th? Let us just review the 3rd. Even for the 3rd, is there an effort to do it more properly? I don’t hypocritically hide my dissatisfaction at this particular reviewer due to my respect to music.

    I still like Grimaud’s PC1 with uncertainty. In my opinion, PC2 asks for sharper edges and the music flows more vertically. She played a softened broader tone, which I don’t like much. Some places were paced down too much.

    I thought BSO paid enough for the horn players, but why they always sound hungry like they are not well fed? There was a important moment destroyed the the horn in the 3rd moment (memory leaks, maybe a different place, possibly even in the 3rd sym).

    The 3rd sym should be regarded as Nelsons’ best achievement in this cycle. Even though I don’t like the repeat the first moment, but he was more convincing than many others. One problem I had in the development was that the brass overshadowed 1st violins, which sounded terrible. But it was slightly better on Sat.

    the 4th sym was a major disappointment. there was not enough sense of tragic (which you can not generally expect from the instrument players). The pace was not convincing and the balance was not convincing. And who gave the flute the freedom in pace in the middle variation in the 4th movement? I was furious. if it was the player’s choice, I’d punish the player by forcing him/her to listen to the broken horn for 100 times.

    No wonder this symphony was played before the 3rd. I used to lament on the fact that tragic overture was not given a performance, instead of two modern fillers. But I think that would have made me angry too.

    Comment by Thorsten — November 21, 2016 at 11:40 am

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