When pianist Christian Zacharias appears with the Boston Symphony, it is invariably a charmed partnership. I got to know Zacharias through his sublime Scarlatti recordings, which still provide the best introduction to this composer. After 20 years of hearing him live and in recordings, I still marvel at the beauty and poetry of his still-competition-level chops, driven by an incisive musical mind. On Friday afternoon, Zacharias served as both superb conductor and pianist in a cleverly conceived amalgam of Brahms and Schumann.
As conductor, Zacharias opened with Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 in A Major a relative rarity here. Brahms’s biographer, Jan Swafford, who also wrote this concert’s program excellent notes, muses that the two serenades were orchestration exercises,
“Kapellmeistermusik of no great consequence no aspiring to be. He would not give them the exalted name of SYMPHONY. Yet they endure in the context of Brahms’s later and greater music as stretches of fresh air… He never again allowed himself to be quite so unbuttoned in orchestral music…. The serenades resound with the spirit of his youth…. The startling thing about the serenades: while Brahms’s first surviving piano music sounds conspicuously Brahmsian, his first purely orchestral works are far less so.”
The novel orchestration of this Serenade excludes trumpets and violins, leaving pairs of woodwinds, viola, cellos, and basses. Richard Sebring contributed beautiful horn solos and John Ferillo’s oboe soared elegantly above the strings in his many stirring solos.
The conductor fortuitously paired the Brahms serenade with Robert Schumann’s Introduction and Allegro appasionato for piano and orchestra, Op. 92 (“Concertstück in G Major), most recently heard in Symphony Hall in 1902, and at Tanglewood, with pianist Lilian Kallir and conductor Eric Leinsdorf in 1966. Composed in 1849 as a vehicle for Clara Schumann, who gave its premiere in Leipzig in 1850 it remains one of his most neglected works. In his magisterial Schumann biography, John Daverio explains that here, Schumann “transformed the design of the concerto in a manner that reflected a common mid-19th-century practice of piano virtuosos, who often programmed only the final two movements of a three-movement concerto. By shaping his Opus 92 as an extended introductory Langsam followed by an imposing Allegro, Schumann inscribed a performing practice into the very fabric of the music.” Unlike most concertos, Swafford notes, “Vehemently romantic… it is less a dialogue or debate between orchestra and soloist than both of them carrying on a tumultuous voyage together.”
Conducting with crystalline clarity and expressive gestures from the lidless Steinway, with the tail of the instrument pointed backstage, Zacharias joined the ensemble with his elevated sensibilities. He stood for the few dramatic moments when the keyboard part did not demand his attentions. And the manner in which he arched his lilting long limbs got the players to shape great curves of phrases with fervor. Zacharias made a strong case as pianist and leader for this ravishing piece, which he clearly loves.
In a diary entry of March 1841, Schumann noted, “My next symphony will be called ’Clara’ and I will portray her with flutes, oboes, and harps.” (The harp thing never happened, alas). Schumann wrote what we now know as his Fourth Symphony, perhaps his most romantic and popular symphony, as a birthday present for his wife Clara. When it met with a decidedly lukewarm response at its debut in Leipzig in 1841, Schumann abandoned any notion of having it hearing it again or publishing it. The work consequently disappeared into a drawer for the next ten years. Zacharias had interesting ideas about tempos and breaks, and his results were appealing and convincing. His precise, often balletic, and always naturally propelled pulse transfers inevitably from his supremely gifted keyboard feats to his brilliant and communicative conducting. He drew a most impressive interpretation from an alert and responsive orchestra.
The Fourth Symphony, Daverio explains, Schumann’s “radical approach to symphonic structure involves thematic variation and transformation, which Schumann first encountered in Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. Schumann’s symphony bridges the gap between the keyboard fantasies of the earlier part of the century and the later tone poems of Liszt. I strongly recommend hearing this exquisite concert Saturday night (tonight), and we hope management invites Zacharias back very soon!
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.