At the BSO, frequent guest conductor Kurt Masur returned to lead the orchestra in a Brahms program: the Symphony No. 3 in F, maybe the least often heard of Brahms's four popular symphonies, and the gigantic Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat. These are works from the height of Brahms's career, and composed at the height of his powers, as he was turning 50. Masur is now 84 and visibly frail. His gestures are smaller, and his tempos seem a hair slower, but he's had pretty much the same results for many years. I wish I liked those results more. I had such high hopes for him after he first visited Boston — an evening of Mozart's last three symphonies, led with unflagging energy. But I haven't heard a real pulse in his music-making in a long time. Contrasting movements have little contrast in speed or dynamics. His leisurely approach to the Allegro con brio opening of the Third Symphony simply omitted the "brio." The ghostly pavane of the slow movement never felt like a dance; it just dragged (unlike, say, Otto Klemperer's mysteriously riveting slow tempos). This was not an incompetent performance. It was well-played and honest. But I found it tepid.
Keyboard virtuoso Yefim Bronfman was scheduled to play the concerto, but had to cancel while he was recuperating from a finger injury (according to the program insert he was not allowed to play "for one week"). His last-minute substitute was Nicholas Angelich, an American virtuoso just past 40 and beginning to make the rounds on the international circuit. He's an impressive technician and an interesting colorist. But a lot of his playing also lacked color, and seemed — as a friend put it — "confined." There was a lot of pedaling, but the sound never leapt into the hall. And I never felt in this daunting masterpiece any emotional conviction or exploration. The performance seemed mainly about piano playing. The audience gave him a warm hand, but someone at the beginning of the intermission walked by me with her warm hand gripped tightly around her neck. The most beautiful playing in the concerto was James Sommerville's opening horn solo and Jules Eskin's moving cello song in the slow movement.
Masur's thick-textured Brahms could have particularly benefited from the aural spaciousness and transparency of James Levine's inspired restoration of the old practice of seating the first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage. That arrangement has been totally absent this season. I'm worried that Levine's innovation is being discarded because there's now no music director in charge.
Two nights later, it was a pleasure to hear the clarity of antiphonally divided violin sections in Boston Baroque's sparkling and spirited period-instrument performance of Haydn's late choral masterpiece The Creation. This is Haydn's joyous celebration of the etiology of life, taken from the Bible and Milton's Paradise Lost, and musically a celebration of the creative process itself. We hear the origins of both nature and tonality emerging from chaos in one of the most astonishing openings in all of classical music. Three angels — Raphael, Uriel, and Gabriel — and the chorus sing of the seven days of creation, with Haydn depicting the creation of light and imitating the songs of larks and nightingales and the creeping of lowly worms. It ends with an extended dialogue between an innocent Adam and his obedient Eve.
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