In conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, the BSO has one of its most trusted guests and thoughtful collaborators.
All-Brahms Program, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, through September 24.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Johannes Brahms’s Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra wastes no time getting down to business: after a four-bar orchestral introduction that seems to begin mid-phrase, the solo cello enters with an extended cadenza. The choice of the Concerto as the opening work of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) 2013-14 season then might be read as something of a promising metaphor for the season to come, one that, if not adventuresome in its programming, is built on a sturdy foundation of the core repertoire: despite the lack of flashiness, the BSO seems to be saying, there’s plenty of quality music here. At least that’s how it seemed on Saturday’s opening night. For the all-Brahms program, violinist Augustin Hadelich and cellist Alban Gerhardt joined the BSO and guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi in the Double Concerto; after intermission Dohnányi led a probing account of the Second Symphony.
Saturday night’s concert offered a nice change of pace from recent BSO opening nights. For one, it presented a substantive evening of music, rather than a lightweight program that is often little more than incidental to the traditional post-concert dinner for the orchestra’s big donors. This year the BSO got the dinner business out of the way early, with a pricey gala event on Thursday. It may have been a one-time decision, but I appreciated it: it was nice for the focus of opening night to be on what it should be, the music.
This year’s opening night also brought back a conductor, rather than a violinist (Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2011, Itzhak Perlman last September), to lead the orchestra. And it made a difference. In Christoph von Dohnányi, the BSO has one of its most trusted guests and thoughtful collaborators. The orchestra usually gives him their best and they largely did that on Saturday, playing with a warm, rich tone and responding to his every gesture.
That focus really paid off after intermission in a profound, organic reading of the familiar Symphony no. 2. This is music that is filled equally with shadows and light, and Dohnányi wrung as much out of the music’s melancholic passages as any conductor I’ve heard. In his hands, the brooding second movement became the emotional heart of the Symphony, its anguished, lamento refrain standing as an ominously recurrent leitmotif between passages of serene beauty and driving fury.
The first movement, after a dodgy start, also blossomed into something quite memorable. Dohnányi’s focus here was the on the music’s melodic line, wherever that went, and on elucidating the Symphony’s many inner voices. It was an engrossing display that showcased the BSO’s wind and brass sections particularly well and featured some velvety playing from the strings. Particularly striking was the way that Dohnányi smoothed over the score’s punchier rhythmic patterns: they were articulated in a gentle manner, one that was pointed but stayed out of the way of the melodic line.
The third movement balanced a genial opening section that, again, provided a showcase for supple wind playing, with some breathtaking virtuosity during its two brisk sections. Indeed, these latter episodes were taken at a very fast clip and the orchestra’s responsive playing was impressively precise.
In the finale, though, Dohnányi didn’t emphasize speed: this was, in fact, one of the slower Allegro con spirito’s on record. As a result, it was a reading that felt more deliberate than ebullient. But a majestic run through this movement delivers a thrill of its own, allowing the listener to revel in its rich sonorities, and this view was especially welcome on Saturday given the high level of the orchestra’s playing. Throughout, there was much to admire, as Brahms’s weaving of various motivic figures came to the fore. Only at the end did Dohnányi allow the music to run a bit wild and the triumphant brass peroration brought a jolt of excitement just when it was needed.
The evening began with the craggy Double Concerto, written by Brahms to heal a rift between himself and his once-close friend, Joseph Joachim. Saturday’s protagonists, violinist Augustin Hadelich and cellist Alban Gerhardt, are two commanding soloists in their own rights. Their accounts of the solo parts seemed well matched, expressively – the opening cadenzas were rife with tension and their subsequent interactions dovetailed effortlessly together – though Gerhardt’s sound was more than a few times subsumed into the orchestral fabric. Hadelich possesses a sweet tone that’s very well suited to this repertoire – he reminded me of Perlman, though his playing is a little less forceful – and he took full advantage of the stratospheric passages in his part.
Under Dohnányi, the BSO delivered a strict, straightforward account of Brahms’s orchestral writing. The first movement possessed a rich sound and a strong sense of the music’s rhythmic profile, while Dohnányi’s quick pace in the second movement ensured about as unsentimental an account of Brahms’s folk-like melodies as can be imagined (though the soloist’s elaborations of the main tune brought a pleasing warmth to the proceedings). In the finale, everything clicked. Hadelich and Gerhardt brought lots of color and fire to Brahms’s gypsy-infused solo writing and imbued the movement’s grand second theme with nobility. For their part, Dohnányi and the BSO found the playful character of the music and delivered a spirited accompaniment.
Despite much strong playing, this was an interpretation of the Concerto that didn’t leave too deep an impression, though that may have owed as much to the gripping account of the subsequent symphony as anything else. Regardless, Saturday’s performance augured an auspicious beginning to the new season, one that shifts into high gear next week when Dohnányi returns with Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.