in: Reviews

April 30, 2018

Memorable Brahms, Blazing Prokofiev

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The reason why the BSO accorded the honor of inviting Russian conductor Tugan Sokhiev for two weeks in his first engagement as guest conductor became obvious by the end of last Saturday’s program of Brahms and Prokofiev, the readings differing much in sense and purpose.

Brahms’s Violin Concerto, a work rightly dear to many, allows a sensitive soloist to bring a listener to tears with its many memorable melodies—not just for violin. The oboe solo which begins the second movement one of Brahms’s most treasurable tunes, especially as BSO’s principal oboe John Ferrillo played it with such attention to detail and seamless phrasing.

Jan Swafford’s essay describing that difficult process that finally brought this noble composition to completion suggests that the work might as well be attributed to two composers—Brahms and his violin virtuoso friend Joseph Joachim. Brahms would write out an idea, send it to Joachim, and Joachim would essentially tell Brahms “No, it cannot be played as you have written it. Here is how it might go,” and send the manuscript back to Brahms for retooling. This went on for some time, and we should be grateful for the detente-like outcome. As Swafford reports “…in the final manuscript some of the violin part is in Joachim’s hand. Brahms also gave his collaborator the honor of writing his own cadenza, the one usually used today.”

The 1973-born Russian violinist Vadim Gluzman possesses all of the qualities required of a virtuoso soloist. His biography lists many triumphs he has enjoyed on the world’s stages, and at Symphony Hall, he brought ample facility. While his was not the most “Olympian” and noble traversal of this peerless music, I appreciated his mastery of dynamic control, clean intonation, and fine embrace of rubato, resulting in a true romantic’s interpretation. Sokhiev stayed with him all the way, the two trading collaborative smiles at several crucial points.

Of the concerto’s three movements, the performers enjoyed the most success in the Hungarian/gypsy-music imbued Finalé. Swafford enthusiastically describes the music as “boisterous,” “rollicking,” and “uproarious,” and it was all that on Saturday, sparking an enthusiastic audience response which led Gluzman to play an encore that framed some of his most elegant playing of the evening, the searchingly introspective Sarabande from Bach’s D-minor solo violin Partita, BWV 1004.

Though there was much to admire, this Brahms Concerto performance still seemed a bit unsettled to me, lacking a cohesion and single-mindedness that is so completely evident in some recorded performances of this music, such as the cherishable examples of Heifetz/Reiner and Pearlman /Giulini.

Vadim Gluzman with Tugan Sokhiev (hilary Scott photo)

Sokhiev returned after intermission without his baton to lead a searing and well-nigh ideal reading of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, op. 100, a work given its first American performances by this orchestra in this hall in 1945. Serge Koussevitzky recorded it for RCA in 1946, resulting in the 78 rpm shellac disks with which I grew up and first heard this remarkable music. While that performance remains a precious artifact, hearing this music in full fidelity and live performance is really the only acceptable way to fully appreciate its many felicities.

Sokhiev’s technique, as seen from the back, would appear a bit distracting. In this music, his beat was rarely straightforward, and often blurred, it would seem, by needless little circles and filigrees. Yet judging from the BSO’s flawless execution, this orchestra can read anyone’s style. Sokhiev revealed details that I’ve seldom heard before with such clarity and immediacy. He clearly knows this music thoroughly. No detail escaped his probing.

I was struck again by how demanding this epic piece this is. Extreme highs and lows of the instruments are fully exploited. Prokofiev call for his first violins to soar up into stratospheric C-naturals way above the staff and his tuba plumbs depths down to low F way below. It may be tiring to once again tout the depth of talent in this orchestra, but in a demanding work such as this, the players’ true colors came through with stunning virtuosity at every challenge. Low brass led by Mike Roylance and Toby Oft were pillars beneath the soaring and bright trumpets led by Thomas Rolfs. Flautist Elizabeth Rowe floated beautifully above the fray, William R. Hudgins mastered the rollicking lick at the Symphony’s fourth movement outset, and what a pleasure to hear Gregg Henegar’s elegantly sepulchral contrabassoon. The percussion section was particularly memorable, with Kyle Brightwell and Matthew McKay strongly in evidence. Vytas Baksys dispatched the piano part with panache and accuracy as always, and Jessica Zhou was on point and present with her several important harp contributions. Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova led the Boston Symphony strings to thrilling sound. After hearing the admirable string section of a recently visiting orchestra, one was yet again amazed by the rich-sounding ensemble we hear in in every BSO concert. We are so fortunate.

This truly memorable night showcased perhaps the best conducting and playing I’ve experienced in this symphony.

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.                                                                   

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