Konzertmusik für Streichorchester und Blechbläser, Op.50
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Concerto for Orchestra
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Reviewed by: Luna Shyr
Reviewed: 3 April, 2013
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
A chilly evening in New York City quickly turned warm with golden tones of brass and the grandeur of Rachmaninov and Bartók. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, brought its impressive cohesiveness to Carnegie Hall in a program bookended by two pieces that the ensemble premiered under Serge Koussevitzky (music director from 1924 to 1949).
The first, by Paul Hindemith, was composed in 1930 for the BSO’s 50th-anniversary as part of a set of three works titled Konzertmusik. Each was written for a specific grouping of instruments, Opus 50 for strings and brass. The result is a revelation. Like the spaces and lines of a Mondrian painting, the two groups play off each other in perfect balance as they exchange rhythms, melodic lines and chords. The fullness of the standard brass group resonates against satisfying layers of strings, a section that Hindemith wanted to be as large as possible. By combining the first and second violins into one part, his composition allows the violas to shine; the BSO players drew out the second movement’s slow melody like a single organism. The cellos resume the movement’s lively fugue, which is then picked up by the violins as brass chords build up energy and momentum to the work’s finish and permeated Stern Auditorium with breadth and warmth. Frühbeck, now 79, was the orchestra’s keystone. He mostly sat on a chair, but it hardly detracted from his presence. His charisma lies in his assured and dignified command of the music rather than in showiness, much like the Boston Symphony’s group personality.
Next Garrick Ohlsson arrived with Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. Ohlsson is physically well-suited to handling the giant chords, which he delivered with the same ease as the grace-notes that playfully decorate the first Variation on Paganini’s theme. Ohlsson’s rendition was so consistently pleasant that the sections felt more like ripples in a lake than swells in an ocean. He has a beautiful touch that he applied thoughtfully to slow, quiet chords; but in sections involving darker themes and mood one yearned for more forcefulness and menace. These foreboding passages may have been Rachmaninov’s nod to the legend that Paganini’s technical prowess arose from a pact with the devil. Nonetheless, hearts were probably aching when the musicians broke into the romantic and sweeping ‘Variation XVIII’, featured in the 1980 Christopher Reeve film Somewhere in Time.
The BSO’s ability to hold together like superglue proved powerful in Bartók’s technically demanding and harmonically complex Concerto for Orchestra. With Frühbeck bent over in a virtual crouch, the cellos and double basses commenced the piece as subtly and quietly as the first light of dawn. Such masterful moves made for gorgeous starts and finishes to the five movements; as the side drum (snares off) tapered off at the end of the second, the conductor drooped over like a puppet whose strings had slackened. The players responded with a beautifully nuanced performance, from graceful rhythms to mournful melodies and, in the fourth movement, lilting passages. Here the trombone glissandos that start a circus-like section parodying the first movement of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony were played with relish and humor; it would be interesting to know what Frühbeck said to the musicians during rehearsals. The splendor and elation of the finale makes it hard to believe that Bartók was in a state of despair when the piece was commissioned in 1943 by Koussevitzky. The frenzied string parts and riveting push forward seem to capture the fact that Bartók wrote Concerto for Orchestra in just eight weeks, while resting at a sanitarium in upstate New York. In this performance under Frühbeck the work climaxed with a final chord that lingered for a beat in the hall – to glorious effect.