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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Concert Review: Time-Scape

The Boston Symphony Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pekonen
Bernard Haitink.
Photo by Chris Christodoulu © 2013 London Symphony Orchestra.
The repertory of any major symphony orchestra spans centuries, with composers influencing each other's work over a vast ocean of time.  On Tuesday night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra offered a program that built bridges over that ocean, from the 19th century to the baroque era and from the England of the 17th century up to our own era. This was the first of two concerts this week under the baton of Bernard Haitink. The 85-year-old Dutch conductor is now in his sixth decade of conducting, and second decade of his long association with the BSO.

Tuesday's concert started without the Boston strings, who remained offstage for the performance of the Funeral Music for Queen Mary by contemporary composer Steven Stucky. Mr. Stucky's work is essentially a transcription and re-arrangement of themes by the British composer Henry Purcell, written for the funeral of Mary II ( the wife of the Dutch-born English king William III) in 1694. Although the core of this work remains Purcell, the music sounds surprisingly modern, as the unusual timbres of English horn, contrabassoon and contrabass trombone and tuba create sounds that Purcell himself never would have heard.

Led by Mr. Haitink, the BSO brass, wind and percussion delivered a performance that underlined the seriousness of the subject. As Purcell's themes were rearranged for small choirs of double reeds, horns and heavy brass, accompanied by a percussion section that included chimes, vibraphone and piano, one could not help think of Benjamin Britten and his own set of Purcell variations, better known as the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

For the Schumann Piano Concerto, the orchestra was joined by pianist Murray Perahia, in a rare appearance as a guest soloist. Schumann started this work as a one-movement Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, writing the difficult solo part for his wife Clara, a virtuoso pianist. The work was later expanded to its present three-movement form. Written in Schumann's bold, innovative style, it sounds easier than it actually is, and its pages are packed with pitfalls to trap an unwary and underprepared soloist.

In this interpretation, Mr. Perahia and Mr. Haitink's collaboration made one think of the close relationship between the Schumanns, and to imagine the piano part (Clara) in constant dialogue with Robert's orchestra. Here, the first movement was played with grace, taste and style, from the first entry of the piano (in conjunction with the orchestral tutti) to the extended and thrilling cadenza which has enough musical material written into it for three piano sonatas.

The high level of performance continued, into the central Intermezzo and capering final Allegro vivace. (The two movements are played attacca, or without pause.) Mr. Perahia played the slow movement with a simple eloquence, taking the song-like melody and letting it flow swiftly from his fingers. Supported by the sturdy woodwinds of the Boston players, he leapt into the dance of the final movement, with its repeated thematic ideas taking on the character of a manic celebratory dance. It is not an exaggeration to say that this was pianism at its finest.

The concert ended with an old-fashioned, thoroughly professional reading of Brahms' Fourth and final) Symphony. Mr. Haitink adopted brisk tempos in the opening of the first movement, underlining the tragic character of the music as it moved through Brahms' opening thematic statements and the prominent clarinet theme that (presumably without intention) echoes a theme in Wagner's Flying Dutchman overture. The taut, polished playing continued through the  complex development that followed. The recap was powerful, with stunning playing from the BSO horns. The second movement is a somber march, starting with deceptively gentle pizzicato strings and reaching a raging climax that anticipated the early symphonies of Gustav Mahler.

The last two movements of Brahms' final symphony look back in time, to the music of the 18th century that so inspired this composer. There was something at once courtly and boisterous in the descending, rhythmic chords of this dance movement, with the BSO playing as a tight, disciplined unit. That precision was also necessary in the finale, a Bach-inspired chaconne (a kind of ground bass) put through thirty complex variations in an idea that owes something to Bach and something to Beethoven's Eroica. The BSO players responded ably to Mr. Haitink's direction here, moving the theme around the orchestra in a complex game of notes before summarizing this tragic work in a slashing final chord.

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