On (and off) track

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  April 29, 2008

Violinist Kyoko Takazawa joined Benjamin Zander’s Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in a beautiful and commanding performance of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (1938 — some people don’t count his first concerto, from 30 years earlier and unpublished in his lifetime). When Bartók’s violinist friend Zoltán Székely asked him for a piece, Bartók first wanted to give him a set of variations. The concerto Bartók finally wrote is actually a fascinating network of variations, both within and between movements. It’s a rangy work, both violent and exquisitely lyrical, using a 12-tone melody in one movement and a tender folk tune in another. Rhythmically slippery, the performance seemed a triumph of unification.

I attended the Thursday-evening performance, when Zander and the orchestra offer a lecture/demonstration during (rather than before) the concert. I’d rather just listen to music than be “educated” — but Zander’s talk about the Brahms First Symphony was particularly illuminating. He called its simultaneity of depression and exhilaration “dramatized ambiguity.” The symphony was powerfully and beautifully played (Peggy Pearson was the searching oboist in the slow movement), but I wonder whether having the lecture so close to the performance was partly responsible for the symphony’s being so unrelieved in its intensity, with Zander playing down the tender moments of unanxious calm. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn the two later performances had a greater spectrum of color and more quiet playing. Who would guess that, even at this late date, Brahms is harder to play than Bartók?


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