Braving the hordes of road warriors leaving for their Thanksgiving holiday, a capacity crowd heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1 in C, Op. 15 with redoubtable soloist Rudolf Buchbinder, and Bruckner’s Symphony #4 in E-flat Major on Tuesday. Allowing for the occasional gripe, this concert showcased the orchestra’s brilliant play in its fourth season with this leader.
In the concerto, we heard the orchestra’s evolving gifts as accompanying partner. The tempos in the outer movements were aggressively brisk, but never out of control. Beethoven’s scintillating scales and streams of notes were articulated with breathtaking clarity, lines that were divided between sections were handed off seamlessly, and the sections balanced each other beautifully. Every last detail could be heard in the counterpoint, enveloping the soloist without ever pulling focus from him. And the wind choir, led by flutist Elizabeth Rowe, oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William Hudgins, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda, blended together stunningly. Their many chorale-like passages were weighted ever so slightly towards oboe and bassoon in the more martial outer movements, and towards the clarinet in the slow movement to create a delicate Mozartian piquancy. And arpeggio figures bubbled up in flexible response amidst string and solo figures with peppy insouciance.
The soloist came across as a disappointment by comparison. Buchbinder knows these concertos backwards and forwards, having recorded complete cycles of them twice and performed them countless times. He dipped and swayed, seemed to be humming along merrily as he played, and watched carefully for some of the trickier dovetailing moments with the wind soloists. His playing of the outer movements had his characteristic flashy, muscular tone, but I missed the nuance, the dynamic shading and shaping, and the phrasing that the orchestra was placing around him. Fast scales got muddy and lost rhythmic point, and repeated figures were played with a disappointingly predictable sameness, over and over again, in the music of this most evolutionary of composers. It was only in Beethoven’s cadenza to the first movement where Buchbinder seemed to come alive musically, playing with more rhythmic flexibility and sense of drama. And the best playing of the night came in the slow movement, where the lyrical theme was handled with poetic sensitivity and the ensemble with the wind soloists was gorgeous. If the rest of the concerto had matched this level of playing, it would have been special indeed.
After the intermission, Nelsons and the BSO returned with another chestnut written by an outsider making his mark in Vienna, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony #4 in E-flat. Nelsons used Leopold Nowak’s 1953 edition of Bruckner’s 1878/1880/1886 revisions to the score (here) for a detailed description of the different editions and the “Bruckner problem”). The first movement was taken at a fairly brisk clip, but with supple inflections of tempo, slowing here and speeding up there. Bruckner’s complex multi-layered score was rendered with remarkable transparency, and the orchestra played with disciplined dynamic control. The opening string tremolo was barely audible, but present enough to support James Somerville’s gorgeous horn solo, and the orchestra built up volume and momentum to the first brass-driven orchestral tutti. But the BSO didn’t simply “red-line” to maximum volume with each fortissimo, they played compellingly at medium dynamics, and pulled back to stunning effect, most notably in Elizabeth Rowe’s otherworldly flute solo in the recapitulation, and a restless, undulating figure played by the cellos in the coda. The biggest bang of the movement was saved up to the end, making for a large-scale movement with a lovely narrative sweep.
The slow movement gave pride of place to the orchestra’s sumptuous string tone. I was particularly struck by the contrast of a pre-Mahlerian Ländler-like dance tune in the strings with a hymn-like chord progression in the winds and brass. There was a stunning, Wagnerian buildup near the end to a brass restatement of the original tune, and a lovely fade-out over Timothy Genis’s droll timpani. The third movement Scherzo bristled with energy, again showing well-judged flexibility of tempo, along with sharp, crisp playing by the brass section, and a compellingly frantic anticipation in the string pizzicato before the Scherzo tune repeat. The Trio was a genial, danceable Ländler, led by clarinetist William Hudgins in fine style.
If there was a disappointment to the evening, it was in the fourth movement finale. Bruckner’s symphonic finales test the mettle of conductors and orchestras; it is a challenge to maintain the narrative momentum as it shifts from moment to moment. The Boston Symphony offered a kaleidoscopic range of colors and moods in this finale (their recent work with the music of Shostakovich may have even given them extra appreciation for the sonic pungency of some of Bruckner’s unusual instrument combinations). But the frequent escalations to fortissimo made it easy for the brass to play too loudly, and obliterate the sound of the other sections. They overwhelmed the strings the most, with large-scale musical paragraphs of the first three movements lost in the shuffle.
Narrative quibbles aside, the BSO pulled off an impressive slow-burn final buildup to the last glorious climax. To my ears, Nelsons and the Boston Symphony have made great strides in assembling an ensemble with an enviably brilliant sound, and an ability to tell a compelling musical story.
Buchbinder, Nelsons, and the BSO present this program again on Friday afternoon and Saturday evening; the Saturday performance will be streamed on WCRB at 99.5 FM or (here). After that, Buchbinder travels to Abu Dhabi to play and conduct the Dresden Staatskapelle in Beethoven’s 1st and 5th piano concertos, while Nelsons and the BSO will have one last concert series in 2017, featuring Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto #2 with soloist Leonidas Kavakos and Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony before making way for the Pops winter season.
James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.