Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fireworks sans fire

Feng Ning and friend.

Last weekend, for the first time in 25 years, the Boston Philharmonic programmed the famously demanding Brahms Violin Concerto - because, conductor Benjamin Zander let it be known, he had finally found "the man for the job" (according to the Globe's Jeremy Eichler) in the young Chinese sensation Feng Ning.

Well, Mr. Ning is certainly "the man" for just about any job on the violin - like so many Chinese prodigies these days (Lang Lang, Yuja Wang), he has an almost unbelievable level of technique. And he needs it all in the Brahms, which is widely believed the most difficult of violin concertos - as the canard goes, the piece was not written for the violin, but against it.

But Eichler went on to praise Ning's "warm singing tone" - which is a bit bizarre, because brilliant as Ning is, his playing is mostly flash with little passion. Or is it even flash? There's something a little blank about Ning's stage presence, and while his playing seemed fevered - indeed at times devoted to a relentless rubato - beneath the sparks dancing on its surface it felt oddly dutiful (meanwhile, rather than shaping his usual grand gestures, Zander seemed to be constantly lifting, then pressing, his foot to the pedal too). Ning only opened up into real feeling in the themes of the lovely second movement (perhaps inspired by the opening passages from the woodwinds, here tenderly essayed by oboist Peggy Pearson). My partner's comment was that "he plays like a competition winner" (and he's won just about every one there is): that is, technically brilliant, and driven to dazzle, but not deeply musical.

But I can't say Ning left me cold; the encore brought a note of surprising poignance to the performance. The young violinist chose an arrangement for violin of Francisco Tarrega’s familiar guitar piece “Recuerdos de la Alhambra" - but this time its famously lush textures, pushed far up into the violin's range, sounded hauntingly lonely and sad. The final notes seemed to trail after Ning like a melancholy question mark.

Zander had paired the Brahms with another large-scale set-piece, Dvořák's rarely-heard Symphony No. 7 (yes, two symphonies before he went to the New World). The piece has a reputation as "one of the greatest symphonies you've never heard," and Zander proved the saying true with one of his trademarked barn-storming performances. This conductor loves the colossal, of course, and has a special talent for grand clashes, and you get all that in spades in the Dvořák Seventh. The symphony is an affecting paean to the political struggles of the composer's homeland - it's shot through with both pride and foreboding, and features the usual (for Dvořák) cornucopia of memorable tunes, and even a mad kind of waltz in its middle.

Zander (who's rather like the David Lean of local conductors) handled all this with both a gripping sense of command and a nearly-brimming sense of emotion, and the players, who clearly adore their conductor in his high mode, responded with almost overwhelmingly energy. The symphony's final peroration sounded something like an orchestral shout of triumph. It was hard to imagine a more compelling version of a piece that deserves far more attention than it receives.

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