Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Of Bartók, Brahms and Beethoven

For its final concert of the season, the Boston Philharmonic offered a curious pairing: a well-loved warhorse (Brahms's first symphony) rubbed shoulders with a prickly piece of modernism - Bartók's Second Violin Concerto, essayed by the virtuosic Japanese violinist Kyoko Takezawa (at left). It was hard to see precisely how these two pieces might illuminate each other, aside from their rather melancholy historical juxtaposition - in his much-delayed first symphony, the late Romantic Brahms raised, then put to rest, Beethoven's classicist ghost; while in the Second Violin Concerto, Bartók sent Romanticism careening into Modernism, against which it basically splintered. Not everyone would agree with that back-of-a-napkin summation, of course - and it was even harder to parse in this particular concert, given that the audience-pleasing Brahms wrapped up the program rather than beginning it. And perhaps not everyone would agree with my gut feeling that the Brahms succeeded, while the Bartók didn't - indeed, I'm hard pressed to explain precisely why I feel that way.

Certainly Ms. Takewaza is a force to be reckoned with, and could hold her own against the BSO or any other major orchestra (why she seems locked in a second-tier touring situation is probably a function of the classical-music political machine, which, well-oiled as it is, is careful to remain invisible to most concertgoers). Takewaza's sound is not particularly large, but it's clean, lean, and startlingly agile, and her attack can be ferocious. She clearly knew the Second through and through, although her Bartók was rather more a "classic" modernist than a late, late, late Romantic; the pensiveness of the music came through, and its sudden flashes of doom - but perhaps not its episodic lyricism; the music was driven by force rather than fire. And Ms. Takewaza appeared manifestly unhappy on the Jordan Hall stage - her personal pensiveness, in fact, offered an intriguingly meta comment on the music's. She seemed to have little connection with conductor Benjamin Zander, even though the orchestra provided her detailed, thoughtful support - the string section in particular followed her with something like a haunting shimmer. Still, one reason to catch a Boston Philharmonic concert is to see the interplay between Zander and his players, and here there was a curious void where often there's intense connection.

Said connection, however, was back with the Brahms - which offers the kind of big, rhetorical gestures at which Zander (right) excels. The orchestra played with enthusiasm, and while there was little in the way of interpretive innovation on display, the piece sounded glorious, and Zander did conjure some complexity in the famous last movement. Here principal horn player Kevin Owen brought an affecting, dying fall to the call which seems to summon Beethoven's ghost, and the ensuing theme - so close to the motifs of Ludwig van that some wags have dubbed the piece "Beethoven's Tenth" - rose in the strings and winds with just the right mix of warmth and sympathy: a reminder not only of Beethoven but also of what the Boston Philharmonic does best.

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