Boston Symphony Orchestra/Dohnányi Frank Peter Zimmermann [Bartók, Martinů & Dvořák]

Divertimento for Strings
Violin Concerto No.2
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 3 December, 2009
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall

Christoph von DohnányiIn this program Christoph von Dohnányi led works by three central-European composers, all of whom spent a significant amount of time in the United States. Two of them – Béla Bartók and Bohuslav Martinů – enjoyed especially close connections to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the BSO from 1924 to 1949, commissioned Bartók to write his Concerto for Orchestra and premiered the work at Symphony Hall in 1944. Martinů also found a champion in Koussevitzky, who performed, premiered or commissioned many of the Czech composer’s most important works.

Martinů wrote his Second Violin Concerto for Mischa Elman, who gave the premiere with the BSO and Koussevitzky in December 1943. Later that season Elman and the orchestra repeated the work in New York’s Carnegie Hall, and then at Tanglewood in 1946. After that the BSO never played it again, until this performance. The piece is one of two Martinů works the orchestra is presenting this season in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death in 1959 (the Frescoes of Piero della Francesca was performed last October).

Frank Peter Zimmermann. Photograph: Franz HammReplete with lyricism, Martinů’s Second Violin Concerto is a virtuosic showpiece for both soloist and orchestra. In this performance Dohnányi, the BSO and Frank Peter Zimmermann were at the top of their form. Zimmermann delivered a superb account, displaying poise, beauty of tone, and a keen sense of phrasing, and, in the outer movements, seemingly effortless virtuosity.

The concert opened with Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings, a three-movement work. Reminiscent of the concerto grosso of the Baroque period, the piece blends the usage of the eighteenth-century with Bartók’s own twentieth-century emotional outlook and folk-flavored palette. While there is a constant interchange of foreground and background as the whole ensemble, soloists and smaller groups alternate, the work sandwiches a mournful middle movement between two very lively outer ones. The first is a bright sonata-allegro; the finale is an exuberant folksy rondo filled with delightful instrumental effects including a “gypsy fiddle” cadenza which offered concertmaster Malcolm Lowe an opportunity to display his sparkling skills. The sumptuous BSO strings played superbly, but the most effective moments were in the haunting Adagio, in which Dohnányi elicited especially incisive dynamic contrasts and some delicate, mournful textures.

Throughout the BSO’s history, Dvorak’s music has been a stable of its repertory. Arthur Nikisch conducted the BSO in the American premiere of the composer’s Eighth Symphony in 1892, when the work was only two years old. Unfortunately Dohnányi’s performance was a less than refreshing experience. Overall, Dohnányi took a rather mellow approach, with the first two movements sounding overly relaxed and lacking in sufficient impetus. Only in the lilting third-movement Allegretto did any feeling of spontaneity come through. The finale, in which some raucous tone emanated from the brass, was curiously lackluster and emotionally remote.

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