IN: Reviews

Bamberg Symphony Rewards Celebrity Series Crowd


Lukás Vondráčék

Symphony Hall was half empty on Tuesday night, the evening of Passover’s second Seder. This was unfortunate timing, as Bamberg Symphony From the first note to their last, they deserved a packed house for their unusually well-played concert of popular standards (Wagner, Brahms, Schumann). I came to hear a program of music I have long loved, but fell in love with the orchestra as well. What an array of excellent players! What an impassioned, intelligent conductor! Thank you once again, Celebrity Series of Boston.

The Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin felt like the majestic opening of a flower which lasts only until nightfall, but puts on quite a show for that brief span. It begins with quietly quivering violins, then slow accretions of woodwinds and eventually brass and a cymbal add their voices. After a calm few minutes, the prelude heroically summarizes the story of the medieval knight Lohengrin (whose father is the star of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal) and his quest for the Holy Grail. With this orchestra, it left an indelible mark of deep beauty.

Brahms’s Symphony in F Major, Op.90, composed shortly after his 50th birthday, felt like a bittersweet reunion with a very old friend. Surprised how deeply affecting it was, I realized perhaps the orchestra members were also feeling this, because they produced playing full of luscious sound, drama and personality. The French horn player nearly stole the show in his solos, but all the horns and winds impressed. (It should be noted that each section has two principals). Jakub Hrůša chose tempi no one could gainsay, and the symphony (the shortest of the Brahms’s four Brahms) flew by. Clara Schumann described the delicately melancholy third movement as “a pearl, but it is a grey one dipped in a tear of woe.” Huge cheering ensued, along with a standing ovation, which set a pattern for the whole evening.

What formidable competition the brave soloists performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor face from both the many living- and the no-longer-living who have made this wondrous work “theirs,” including Héléne Grimaud, who played it with this orchestra Wednesday in Carnegie Hall. Tuesday’s soloist Lukás Vondráčék’s bio oddly states he was “the indisputable winner” (who is disputing him?) of the Grand Prix at the 2016 Queen Elizabeth Piano Competition, as well as several other competitions. He earned an Artist Diploma at NEC under Hung-Kuan Chen in 2012. His interpretation sounded merely okay until the three-minute cadenza at the end, which showed off his gifts more vividly. His rather lengthy encore, Schumann’s Arabesque, featured Vondráček at his best. Standing O again.

Jakub Hrůša (Pavel Hejnz photo)

During the summer of 1841 that the philologist Samuel Lehrs introduced Wagner to the German legends of both Lohengrin, a knight of the Holy Grail, and Tannhäuser, a medieval minnesinger. Cosima Wagner’s Diaries (1878-83), Wagner’s second wife revealed before her husband’s death that he felt “he still owed Tannhäuser to the world.” Tannhäuser premiered in Dresden, Germany in 1845 and was hardly the success Wagner had hoped for. He began revisions to the opera immediately, which resulted in four versions, after further revisions, reduced to two versions: the Dresden version and the Paris version. The main difference between the two is the insertion of a ballet to fulfill the conventions of Parisian opera. Tannhäuser was not successful in Paris either and Wagner continued to be tormented by its failure for the rest of his life. The Overture to Tannhäuser, gives a sensuous glimpse of the dramatic conflict between the sacred Tannhauser’s sacred, chaste love of Elisabeth and his profane, erotic love of Venus.

Wagner, never short on words, wrote of it, “At first the orchestra introduces us to the Pilgrims’ Chorus alone. It approaches, swells to a mighty outpouring, and finally passes into the distance. As night falls, magic visions show themselves. A rosy mist swirls upward, and the blurred motions of a fearsomely voluptuous dance are revealed…. This is the seductive magic of the Venusberg. Lured by the tempting vision, Tannhäuser draws near. It is Venus herself who appears to him…. In drunken joy the Bacchantes rush upon him and draw him into their wild dance…. The storm subsides. Only a soft, sensuous moan lingers in the air where the unholy ecstasy held sway. Yet already the morning dawns: from the far distance the “Pilgrims’ Chorus” is heard again. As it draws ever nearer and day repulses night, those lingering moans are transfigured into a murmur of joy so that when the sun rises the “Pilgrims’ Chorus” proclaims salvation to all the world.”

Amidst the dizzying musical mood-shifting came sumptuous orchestral playing. Apparently composing this opera (and revising it ad nauseum) made Wagner sick.” Meanwhile, he wrote in his diary, “I was very much troubled by excitability and rushes of blood to the brain. I imagined I was ill and lay for whole days in bed.” One was reminded of the price composers pay for their gifts (also mania). Robert Schumann, of course, held feelings of inferiority to his wife Clara, suffered nervous fevers, “wretched melancholy,” leaving him often uncommunicative and thoroughly depressed. And worse. That despite their torments, they persevered as creators of such enduring beauty, seems miraculous.

The engaging rendition of the Overture to Tannhäuser would have perfectly ended this marvelous concert had Hrůša not planned two Brahms encores (the audience did not want to leave despite the late hour): Brahms’s rarely heard, but delightful Hungarian Dances, Nos. 18 and 21.

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.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Nice review, and a TREMENDOUS concert. It kept getting better and better as it went along. The Bamberg Symphony is noted for having a distinctive sound, and they really do! What a pleasure to hear them in Symphony Hall. Kudos to everyone involved – this was a memorable evening that is unlikely to slowly fade away in memory.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — April 25, 2024 at 5:45 pm

  2. This is a really excellently written review. What a pleasant change from what I usually read in the NY Times! I attended the concert at Carnegie. Hrusa REALLY CARES about the sound of the orchestra and this came out very strongly in the Lohengrin Prelude. You captured that well in the review. I was put in mind of Celibidache in the carefully layered colors and perfectly balanced wind chording and control of dynamics. A real pianissimo at the beginning meant the climax was overwhelming, as it should be. Behold – the Holy Grail! I heard “Celi” 4 times and his care for sound has never been equalled for me, but this was extremely close. I found the Brahms really good. Perhaps the hardest of the Brahms Symphonies to do well (many do it badly or boringly) here we were treated to a model performance, lovely sound, lots of inner detail that is often glossed over but without losing the sense of line. I found the slow movement especially fine, not languishing, but moved along lovingly in the manner of Bruno Walter. Helene Grimaud was the sparkling soloist in the Schumann, playing with lovely tone. It’s far from my favorite concerto but I enjoyed it tremendously. The Brahms Hungarian Dances introduced charmingly from the podium reminded me very much of concerts by the touring Czech Philharmonic when I was growing up in the UK – Vaclav Neumann (who spoke next to no English) would turn before the encore and simply state “Slavonic Dance.”!

    Comment by John F Kelly — April 26, 2024 at 12:20 pm

  3. Thank you for the perceptive and detailed review. It was indeed an excellent concert, and I appreciate confirming which piece the soloist played in encore before the intermission, which was also lovely. Overall, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra were outstanding. Each work was played beautifully and the Hungarian Dances in encore were an entertaining way to end a wonderful evening.

    Comment by Dean K — May 4, 2024 at 7:49 am

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