The BSO—Helmless but Not Helpless

by Sedgwick Clark

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has taken its time in replacing James Levine, who stepped down as music director two years ago due to a back injury. While two years without a captain at the helm is hardly optimum, at least the orchestra has avoided Philadelphia’s precipitous mismatch of Christoph Eschenbach (2003-2008). Last week in the two concerts I heard of the three it performed at Carnegie Hall, the BSO demonstrated that it remains close to the top of its game, with its traditional warmth, tonal elegance, and ease of virtuosity firmly in place.

Wednesday’s concert (4/3), under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the orchestra’s favorite guest conductor and Musical America’s 2011 Conductor of the Year, is close to my favorite program of the season. The BSO “owns” two of these works, both commissioned by its enterprising music director from 1924 to 1949, Serge Koussevitzky. The first, Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Op. 50, deserves to be heard more often. It was one of several works the Russian conductor commissioned for the orchestra’s 50th anniversary in 1930—others being Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Roussel’s Third Symphony, Hanson’s Second Symphony (“Romantic”), Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony, Copland’s Symphonic Ode, and works by Honegger, Respighi, and himself (anonymously). After hearing Koussevitzky reprise the Concert Music eight years later, Hindemith wrote in his journal, “I was pleasantly surprised by the piece, for I hardly remembered it. It is serious and very fresh, and not at all ugly.” He adds that the BSO is “the best orchestra in the world,” and one imagines that Frühbeck’s energetic, witty, deeply felt performance would only have bolstered the composer’s estimation.

The second BSO commission on the program, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, needs little comment. It may be the last large orchestral work to enter the basic repertoire. Frühbeck received notably impassioned playing from all concerned, with especially pungent contributions from the woodwinds. Only at the very end did the orchestra come a cropper. Many conductors on record, beginning with Reiner, broaden the tempo at bar 616 for the climactic brass fanfare; Bernstein, Boulez, and others too numerous to mention wrong-headedly (in my humble opinion) follow suit, devitalizing the ending. That old literalist Leinsdorf in his 1962 recording—his first as the BSO’s music director—slams the coda home in tempo as Bartók indicates, which never fails to blow the roof off. Frühbeck’s players couldn’t seem to agree, and what should have been electrifying short-circuited.

Sandwiched between the Hindemith and Bartók works was another conservative 20th-century masterpiece, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, played expressively by Garrick Ohlsson and partnered in kind by Frühbeck. While some might prefer more sec articulation and a slightly quicker pace to evoke the diabolical composer of the title, Ohlsson’s pianism was no less satisfying than in his performance with Atlanta and Robert Spano two seasons ago of the composer’s Third Piano Concerto.

All was right with the world as I left Carnegie after Daniele Gatti had led the second Boston concert (4/4) in Mahler’s Third Symphony (the following night he would lead an all-Wagner program). I was amazed at how easily I was able to suppress my usual Mahlerite niggling and surrender to the glories that Gatti accomplished. I was especially moved by the last movement, which flowed naturally—inevitably—and had just the right “saturated, noble tone” of the brass on the final page that Mahler demands. On the other hand, I felt that the tempo for the third-movement posthorn solo was a bit brisk to achieve the ideal nostalgia. Moreover, many quiet details such as the percussion in the first movement’s introduction were not audible because Gatti took pp marks too literally; recordings can ensure audibility, but live performance in a large space is something else entirely. Overall, however, the Bostonians sounded absolutely resplendent, and one cannot close without noting Anne Sofie von Otter’s evocative singing in the fourth-movement “Midnight Song” from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra and the superb violin solos from second Assistant Concertmaster Elita Kang in this and the previous evening’s Rachmaninoff. A Mahler Third on such a high interpretive and technical level at Carnegie Hall makes life worth living.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

4/11 at 7:30. Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/David Robertson; Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano. Messiaen: Les Offrandes oubliées. Mozart: Concerto No. 23. Tristan Murail: Le Désenchantement du monde. Beethoven: Symphony No. 2.

4/11 at 7:30. Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert; Joshua Bell, violin. Christopher Rouse: Prospero’s Rooms. Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”). Ives: Symphony No. 4

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