BSO Emeritus Conductor Bernard Haitink and pianist Emanuel Ax have been performing together so often and for a such a long time with this orchestra, they feel like (musical) family. But something exceptional happened at Symphony Hall Tuesday: Blaise Déjardin made his (unannounced) debut as the BSO’s Principal Cello.
Both Haitink and Ax have impressive Brahms performing and recording credentials. One of Ax’s early Grammy Awards was for his Brahms Sonatas for Cello and Piano with Yo-Yo Ma; Haitink recorded the Brahms Symphony cycle with the BSO between 1990 and 1994 (Philips); Ax and Haitink recorded this concerto with the BSO in Symphony Hall exactly 21 Aprils ago (for Sony Classical). At that time, Ax remarked that Brahms Second Piano Concerto lived up to its nickname, “the Heavy Cross…. It’s scary. Harder than Brahms First Piano Concerto, even harder than the Rachmaninoff. You have to match the orchestra in grandeur and scope.” The symphonic scope, ceaseless virtuosic demands and sheer power and energy needed over 50 minutes indeed this one of the Everests of piano concertos. Twenty years after recording this concerto, the two plus the BSO still make a dream team.
I had heard Ax with his longtime chamber music partner, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Leonidas Kavakos, a few months ago in an all-Brahms program (they recorded and were touring with the trios). Ax played gloriously that evening, as he did Tuesday night, and I was struck at the time that perhaps he has been under-appreciated. I was wrong. A packed hall last night gave him an immediate standing ovation and four enthusiastic curtain calls made me realize how Boston and Tanglewood (where, in 2014, he was one of the first Koussevitzky Artists) deeply appreciate him.
The big event of the evening, which the packed audience probably hadn’t known about beforehand, was the ascension of Déjardin, who has played for about a decade in the section. He succeeds the late Jules Eskin, who held the post for 52 years. Déjardin had the moral (and musical) support of the entire orchestra, especially among his cello comrades, in the opening work, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, played by this orchestra, along with the First Piano Concerto, almost every year. While he is a familiar face, especially to the legions of fans of The Boston Cello Quartet, few of us have heard him as a soloist. And it was a real treat. He played the two important cello solos in the concerto’s third movement with grace and beauty. Ax insisted, twice, that Déjardin join him at the front of the stage to share the crowd’s adulation. It was a truly memorable moment.
The orchestra played beautifully in Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 73 (1877) This, needless to say, is a piece most of the players could almost perform from memory. The horns (Associate Principal Richard Sebring played first here; Principal James Sommerville played in the concerto), winds, and brass proved themselves outstanding all evening. They responded sensitively to Haitink, who, standing with a straight back and only occasionally sitting on a stool, directed with quiet conviction, totally understood in his gestures. Knowing that he is not slated to appear next year made this performance extra poignant for both the players and the audience.
According to Jan Swafford’s annotations, Brahms described this symphony to Clara Schumann as elegiac, and wrote to his publisher, “This new symphony is so melancholic that you won’t be able to stand it. I’ve never written anything so sad…. The score must appear with a black border.” Yet, every movement is in a major key, and generally it is a cheerful, even ebullient work, especially the fourth movement with its triumphal blaze of three trombones in D Major which leaves audiences cheering. Swafford describes it beautifully: “Brahms’s Second is like a vision of nature and youth troubled by shadows that come and go like dark clouds in a summer sky.”
Haitink inspired the players to their loftiest work. They expressed their thanks by declining to stand up at the end, giving him the entirety of the crowd’s adulation, and demonstrating his BSO comrades’ deep respect.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.