I didn’t know a lot about Brahms before 2 weeks ago, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra was set to perform his fourth and final symphony in their weekly program, along with Nielsen’s Helios Overture and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18, featuring Richard Goode on piano. The program’s guest conductor was Herbert Blomstedt.
As usual, the program notes (freely available on the BSO website) did a great job in shedding light on the process of composing by biographical sketches that often endear the reader to the composer. The bio on Brahms particularly was appealing, as it discusses Brahms bringing his friends together to essentially pitch the idea of Symphony No. 4 to them. He garnered feedback, and in one story, he dismissed his final symphony as “a bunch of polkas and waltzes.” Reading this pre-concert, I didn’t really know what to expect from this self-deprecating characterization, and having very little familiarity with his works in general, I was far more excited by the Mozart. The Helios was also a bit foreign to me, and the pre-concert talk did not help break a feeling that it would be somewhat trite in its presentation. It was a concert program that would soon challenge all of my preconceptions, which was evident immediately and highly amusing.
The Helios traverses the activity of a day, starting off with the calm quiet of morning and following the perceived movement of the sun (helios). Until now, no piece had quite capture the fantastic dynamic range possible in Symphony Hall better than the BSO’s performance of this piece. I had a pretty phenomenal first orchestra seat, but the pianissimo of the strings alone crawled along the baseline of my audible range, and the development into the grandeur of the full orchestra was quite a powerful sound to behold. The piece moved along rather quickly, and I found Nielsen to express his musical ideas succinctly, something I have come to appreciate after having heard a recent performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. I know less about Nielsen than I do Brahms, but he will surely be one for whom I keep an eye out.
Next Goode performed the piano concerto by Mozart, and perhaps like a lot of people, I have a reasonable idea of how I feel like Mozart should sound. Perhaps I am wrong, but there is an interpretive element, and when I play Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, for instance, I am definitely going for a distinct style, marked by speed and very light movements. It’s not just a rhythmic sensibility but something of the attack, which are ideas that translate across instruments. I found some inherent quality of youthful playing, perhaps, missing from Goode’s performance. I did not enjoy it at all, and it was at the time very difficult to separate the music from the performance, which I did not feel did justice to the piece. I’ll have to listen to another rendition of it to get a sense of the actual music.
And finally, the Brahms. The Brahms. What was it? It was bold; it was brilliant. I’ve since heard a recording of the excellent New York Philharmonic with Lorin Maazel, and the difference between the recorded work and the live performance (assuming all else is quite comparable) reinforces the power of live performances. The story told by Jan Swafford in the program notes suggests that the intensity of the piece was perhaps foreboding of darker times to come in Europe, and this story, regardless of accuracy, set a mood only possible in the confines of the active imagination. It amplified the emotional content of the piece beautifully, and I could not help but notice that the BSO’s execution under Blomstedt was excellent. Of the performances I have heard at BSO this season, it was perhaps the best so far.
My preconceived notions of the program were completely backward. The Mozart for which I was most excited was disappointing in its execution, where the most dismissed piece (the Nielsen) was surprising. I came in with halfhearted expectations of the Brahms — after all, if it was so great, wouldn’t I have known it by now? — and left with a similar question: since it is so great, why haven’t I known it by now? I am happy to have discovered it now, better than never. While I certainly look forward to more Nielsen in the future, the enlightenment to Brahms was the true gem of this performance, one I will not soon forget.