Maybe it’s just my imagination, but January seems to be the month when the BSO acquaints us with guest conductors and soloists who aren’t household names. This weekend’s program pairs Hong Kong–born Elim Chan, currently chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, and German-Russian pianist Igor Levit. Chan is making her BSO debut; Levit performed with the BSO at Tanglewood in 2016 and 2018, but this marks his debut with the orchestra in Symphony Hall. On Thursday they gave us a supercharged, ear-opening Brahms Second Piano Concerto, and then Chan did the same for Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, the Little Russian. It was a breath of fresh air.
The third piece this weekend, Brian Raphael Nabors’s 2019 Pulse, is the sort of work that normally opens a program, something short—12 minutes in this case—that gives latecomers a chance to settle in. But the Brahms concerto typically runs close to 50 minutes, and with applause and the inevitable encore it takes up more than an hour. So that work begins the program, and Pulse leads off the second half, with the relatively short—35 minutes—Tchaikovsky providing the closing fireworks.
Levit, who was born in Nizhny Novgorod but now lives in Berlin, isn’t exactly unknown: he was the subject of Alex Ross’s 2020 New Yorker profile titled “Igor Levit Is like No Other Pianist.” It’s hard to argue. This is the pianist who made his Sony recording debut with Beethoven’s final five piano sonatas and followed that up with the Bach Partitas and then a three-disc set comprising Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (He’s since given us the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and a three-disc set combining Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues with Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH.) He’s the pianist who, when the Covid-19 outbreak suspended public concerts in March 2020, responded with a series of 52 live-streamed performances from his Berlin flat. He’s the pianist who told Ross that he “pretty much knew every line of Eminem,” that “Black Star was also very big for me,” and that “For the longest time, I wanted to be Monk, which was, of course, absurd, but it had a big, big influence on how I play the piano.” He’s the pianist who played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at the annual gathering of Germany’s Green Party.
In Boston, however, Levit is the pianist who’s made just the one appearance, a Celebrity Series presentation in February 2017 at Longy School of Music’s intimate Pickman Hall, where he played the Diabelli Variations, Rzewski’s North American Ballad No. 5, and three selections from the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. So his second visit is long overdue. One might have hoped that his Symphony Hall debut would bring a less conventional choice than the Brahms—when the Covid outbreak initially closed concert halls, he was preparing to take on Ferruccio Busoni’s mammoth Piano Concerto. But there was nothing conventional about Thursday’s interpretation. (For the record, the BSO did give us the Busoni, with Kirill Gerstein and Sakari Oramo, just five years ago.)
Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto followed his First by 22 years, though you wouldn’t know that from listening. Upon its completion in 1881, he wrote to Clara Schumann, “I want to tell you that I have written a very small piano concerto with a very small and pretty scherzo.” He was indulging his well-known sense of humor: among piano concertos only the 70-minute Busoni is longer, and the Second’s Scherzo is neither small nor pretty. The piece—which premiered in Budapest in 1881, with the composer at the piano—is a close to a symphony, with four movements and an orchestra that’s more collaborator than accompanist.
The autumnal opening French-horn call augurs a celebration of the harvest and the hunt while mourning the passage of time; the Allegro appassionato Scherzo is an intense wintry waltz. At this point, the trumpets and timpani disappear from the symphony. The Andante, reflecting and meditating, seems to come to terms with the composer’s frustrated love for Clara while signaling the coming of spring. And the Allegretto grazioso is a summery, playful finale with a splash of piccolo and a tinge of Hungarian melancholy.
Brahms has, as always, a few surprises in store. The piano answers that opening horn call with a cadenza, and then after the orchestra has taken up the exposition, there’s a second exposition led by the piano that introduces a new theme. The D-minor Scherzo also repeats its exposition, so we’re expecting sonata form, but in the middle of the development a Trio emerges in D major. The primary theme of the Andante is stated by solo cello; when the piano enters, after nearly three minutes, it’s with a different melody. The celestial “Piú Adagio” middle section in F-sharp major is so mesmerizing that the solo cello, when it returns with the primary theme, joins the piano in F-sharp and has to work its way back to the proper B-flat. The coda unexpectedly returns to “Piú Adagio”; the coda of the finale, however, unexpectedly shifts to “Un poco piú presto.”
There was nothing unexpected about the opening bars Thursday. Following Richard Sebring’s broad, nicely phrased horn solo, Levit tore into the cadenza as if possessed. That elicited a majestic response from the orchestra, with forward brass and timpani. On the podium, Chan was compact, focused, energetic, constantly looking this way and that. Levit thundered into the piano exposition as well, and he maintained his stormy, almost angry drive to the end of the movement. His tone was huge, his touch was varied, and there was no banging; the twinkling transition back to the recapitulation was especially magical. Chan complemented him with turbulence that was rich but never muddy, and she phrased with care, as in the little ebb and flow that led into the second theme of the recapitulation.
I had listened to some 15 recordings in preparation for this concert, but I’d never heard a first movement like this one. Neither, it seems, had Thursday’s audience, since instead of the usual rustling and shuffling and coughing it reacted with stunned silence. The Scherzo brought more of the same, Levit headlong and sonorous, Chan giving a lilt to the second theme and, in the trio, building a triumphant climax that relaxed but didn’t wallow. In the abbreviated reprise, Levit teased out the second theme before speeding into another frenetic finish.
Brahms gave the third movement a metronome mark of 84 crotchets to the minute. No one approaches that; even readings that move right along are in the mid 60s. If 84 seems unthinkable, we at least have a movement title that’s Andante and not Adagio. On Thursday, Blaise Déjardin might have been in the low 70s with a cello solo, flowing and heartfelt, that proved a fast tempo can work. Levit’s initial two arpeggios conveyed longing instead of regret; the tumult subsided only for the “Piú Adagio” section, which went at a real Adagio (as opposed to Largo). Here he was almost too mystical, his left-hand arpeggios being nearly inaudible. That was corrected toward the end, where the left-hand articulation was palpable under the right-hand trill. This vision of what Brahms wrote is not as achingly sad as what we usually hear, but it’s probably closer to what the composer had in mind.
The Allegretto grazioso, again at a quick tempo, sounded more busy than lazy. Levit’s arching arpeggios in the second subject group (bar 113 if you have a score) weren’t as staccato as they might have been, but this was a determined, invigorating finale in keeping with the first three movements, and Chan’s accompaniment was robust throughout. All in all, an original, mature interpretation by a pianist and conductor who seemed thoroughly in synch, who knew what they wanted and how to get it. I was transfixed.
Levit’s encore, Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chorale Prelude BWV 659, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, made an inspired contrast. He bent over the keyboard as if in prayer, and the reading itself was a prayer, simple, weighted, reverent. The audience would clearly have welcomed a second encore, and Levit looked to have the energy for one, but that wouldn’t have been practical on an evening that, as it was, ended at 10:15 p.m.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that a piece by a black composer from Birmingham, Alabama, is on the program of Martin Luther King Jr. holiday week. Whatever, Pulse deserves its place. Nabors originally wrote it for large chamber orchestra but subsequently rescored it for a large symphony orchestra. The percussion section alone includes vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, wood blocks, cymbal, hi-hat cymbal, crotales, tom-toms, bongos, tam-tam, triangle, whip, and bass drum.
Nabors has provided his own program note:
My conception of Pulse began as a long contemplation of daily life as we know it, combined with thoughts of life in nature. The universe seems to have this natural rhythm to it. It is as if every living and moving thing we are aware and unaware of is being held together by a mysterious, resolute force. Pulse is an episodic rhapsody that explores several phases and colorful variants of rhythm all held together by an unwavering pulse. Each episode is meant to symbolize a different scenario of life for the listener, be it a buzzing modern metropolis, a deep wilderness abundant with animalia, or the scenic endless abyss of the ocean. All of these worlds and their philosophical meanings are then brought together in a contemplative theme of ‘unification’ in the strings that symbolizes our deep connection as living beings to everything within, over, under, and around us.
That’s a lot of ideas to cram into 12 minutes. Pulse plunges right in, the music scurrying about with darting accents from the percussion—a whip here, a triangle there—and a trumpet figure. The initial burbling eases after the first two minutes, but the pulse persists throughout, poised between hectic and whimsical. Eventually we get a trio explosion of bongos, tom-toms, and wood blocks where the pulse is carried by rhythm alone. I kept hearing hints of Stravinsky’s Sacre in ways that were intriguing rather than annoying. The music stops dead some six and a half minutes in; then the pulse resumes.
I thought at first that the initial section was meant to represent the “buzzing modern metropolis,” but after the drumming started up, I wondered whether that wasn’t the metropolis and the first section the “deep wilderness abundant with animalia.” Perhaps it’s better not to take Nabors’s “program” too literally. After eight minutes, though, you do hear a “contemplative theme of ‘unification’” as the strings sing out over somber piano and that initial trumpet figure returns.
Chan kept the pulse dancelike and the balances exemplary, no small feat with such a large orchestra. Nabors certainly crams a lot of music into 12 minutes; you’d want to hear the piece a few times to take everything in. The BSO will present it again at Tanglewood this summer, August 5, on a program with Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto and Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.
Tchaikovsky wrote his Second Symphony in 1872, while visiting his sister Alexandra Davydova in Ukraine. Premiering in Moscow in February 1873, the piece was a success from the start; nonetheless, Tchaikovsky revised it in 1879–80, rewriting the opening movement and shortening the finale, and that’s the version we almost always hear. Ukraine in 19th-century Russia was often called “Little Russia,” and because Tchaikovsky had drawn on Ukrainian folk tunes as material for the symphony, his friend Nikolai Kashkin subsequently (in 1896, after the composer’s death) dubbed it the Little Russian. This moniker has persisted, even though it has unfortunate political overtones at present. Name aside, it’s easy to see why this rousing symphony was so popular on its debut, and hard to understand why it doesn’t get programmed more often. The BSO’s most recent Symphony Hall performance was in 2010.
The symphony is like the concerto in that both begin with a solo French horn. Brahms’s horn is stately, forthright; Tchaikovsky’s is moody, almost mournful. Like Brahms, too, Tchaikovsky has a sense of humor and is fond of misdirection. After almost four minutes of Andante sostenuto introduction, the tempo shifts to Allegro vivace and the folk-like first theme kicks in. Except that it isn’t a folk tune; the first five notes quote a chant from the Russian Orthodox Easter liturgy, “Da voskresnet Bog” (“Let God be resurrected”)—a motif that, in 1888, Rimsky-Korsakov would use to open his Russian Easter Festival Overture. The actual Ukrainian folk tune that Tchaikovsky drew on, “Vniz po matushke po Volge” (“Down by Mother Volga”), is the meandering melody that began the movement and will, like a river, wind through it before ending in the same mysterious vein.
The second movement, Andantino marziale, quasi moderato, is a reworking of the act-three bridal march from Tchaikovsky’s 1869 opera Undina (which was never performed and most of which he destroyed). True to the tempo marking, the march sounds more martial than bridal, perhaps because in the opera’s libretto, Huldbrandt is going reluctantly to his wedding with Berthalda. It’s a rondo whose second episode brings another Ukrainian folk melody, “Pryadi, moya pryakha” (“Spin, O my Spinner”). The Scherzo, all whirling snowflakes, sounds folky but isn’t—at least, no folk tunes have been detected here. The movement is in 3/8 with a chirping trio in 2/8; during the Scherzo reprise, the winds try to sneak the 2/8 trio theme back in but the rest of the orchestra, maintaining 3/8, puts them in their place. The last movement begins with a grand entrance fanfare that has Tsarist Russia written all over it—until the strings take the melody on a zippy sleigh ride. It turns out to be yet another Ukrainian folk tune, “Zhuravel” (“The Crane”), and Tchaikovsky makes a dizzying finale out of it, variation after variation accompanied by the thunder and lightning of bass drum and cymbal, all culminating in a fortissimo tam-tam stroke and then the Presto coda.
Chan’s interpretation was of a piece with the Brahms: fast but never driven, crisp, clean. James Sommerville’s opening horn solo was warm and bright; Richard Svoboda’s bassoon added a woodsy note. Chan observed the Andante tempo marking and didn’t let the line sag while still creating a sense of anticipation. The Allegro vivace brought sharp attacks, bracing textures, and intelligent paragraphing, along with some details you rarely hear; the climaxes were stirring without being overblown. The sober closing statements from Sommerville and Svoboda made you wonder whether it wasn’t all a dream.
The Andantino marziale went at a quick march, alert, tensile, with firm timpani. A jauntier pace would have underlined the movement’s humor, but the second part of the tempo marking, “quasi moderato,” suggests that Chan’s tempo is what Tchaikovsky intended. The Scherzo was weighty rather than wispy, with a trio that went at the same lickety-split pace. And Chan found grandeur in the opening of the finale while still adhering to Tchaikovsky’s Moderato assai. Everything thereafter was infectious, with no stinting of cymbal or bass drum or, for that matter, Cynthia Meyers’s piccolo. After the tam-tam had brought the proceedings to a momentary halt, Chan drove the orchestra into a true Presto, and even then the playing remained lucid. I think the composer would have approved. I certainly did.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.