A Tale of Two Conductors (and Two Pianists, Two Concertos, Two Symphonies): Graf and Eschenbach with the BSO in Mozart, Mahler, and Brahms, with Orion Weiss and Peter Serkin

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Gustav Mahler on the podium.
Gustav Mahler on the podium.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood:
Friday, July 29
Hans Graf, conductor, Orion Weiss, piano soloist.
Mozart – Piano Concerto no. 25 in C, K. 503
Mahler – Symphony no. 5

Saturday, July 30
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor, Peter Serkin, piano soloist.
Brahms – Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor, op. 15
Symphony no. 4 in E minor, op. 98

The dual nature of the contemporary orchestral concert experience was clearly displayed last Friday and Saturday nights by the Boston Symphony concerts at Tanglewood. Each offered its own image of how an audience can interact with familiar works. Each featured a central European conductor leading core repertory: one concerto and one symphony each, all works familiar to habitual concert-goers. Each pair of pianists and conductors exhibited strongly-marked contrasts. Both concerts were satisfying, but in very different ways and to markedly different degrees.

On Friday, the music was perhaps less familiar: the opportunities to hear the second great C major concerto of Mozart are less frequent than those for the first Brahms, simply by virtue of the number of different Mozart concerti from which players may choose. Mahler’s symphonies still feel like special occasions, although they are becoming such staples of orchestral life that their privileged status is in danger of eroding. Compare that to Brahms symphony performances, which seem like such bread-and-butter events that the danger of routine, rote performance looms. (One heard such performances frequently in the Ozawa era.) On Saturday, however, the unusual and the routine qualities of the repertory were reversed by the performances: it was the more familiar and frequently heard works that registered the greater impact. The Mozart and Mahler works were played as familiar works of standard repertory, enshrined “masterpieces” whose performances reminded us of ones we had heard before. The Brahms works leaped before the audience with freshness, spontaneity and immediacy; there was no room left for comparisons. There was not a routine moment in these performances, and one heard new voices and messages everywhere in this thrice-familiar music.

Repertory, pianists, and weather aside (it rained hard during the second and third movements of the Mozart concerto, the musicians soldiering on through the dense background noise), the striking differences between concerts can be attributed mainly to the conductors. The role and influence of a conductor remains shrouded in mystery to all concerned: musicians, audiences, to some extent the conductors themselves. It has been often noted that the sound of an orchestra changes as soon as a new leader simply stands in front of the ensemble. (One story has it that even the presence of a charismatic leader in the hall makes a difference. The Berlin Philharmonic was rehearsing under an assistant when suddenly their sound became richer, deeper, and more expressive. Mystified, the players made inquiries and discovered that at that moment, Wilhelm Fürtwangler had entered at the back of the auditorium.)

On these two nights, one sensed that somehow the physical presence of each conductor provided the framework for the musical experience. Hans Graf is a large, beefy guy with a genial countenance, while Eschenbach seemed smaller, more wiry, more mobile and emotionally more volatile. Graf reminded me of Josef Krips while Eschenbach looked like Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Hans-Graf. Photo Christian-Steiner.
Hans-Graf. Photo Christian-Steiner.

Graf provides a sense of familiarity and comfort, knows the music well, and provides reassurance that the things will flow along and keep together. He does not fuss over details, but keeps his eye on the large architectural picture. He allows the instruments to play out during their big moments, and leaves it to the talent and brilliance of the players to give character and beauty to their individual parts. His Mozart was gentle, dignified, mellifluous, and even-paced. This accorded well with the gently articulate approach of pianist Orion Weiss who filled in for the indisposed Leon Fleisher at the last moment. The pianist’s approach was on the quiet side (a problem during the rain) but alert and full of felicitous details. The dramatic contrasts among the plethora of ideas in this work were muted; the orchestral players exuded a certain lovely blandness (a sign that the BSO is on automatic pilot) and the unique grandeur, wit, pathos, and humanity of this work failed fully to register.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is one of that composer’s most perfectly balanced works, and is formally one of his most innovative. It was also the first to be put forth with no program, and there is no vocal text to indicate one. It represents a new style and way of thinking on the part of the composer. Rather than simply dividing into movements as do the others, it is in three “Parts,” the first and third of which consist of two movements each. The central movement is an enormous Scherzo (based on popular waltz rhythms) featuring a principal horn part that is a concerto in itself. The pairs of movements on either side exhibit balancing contrasts: the first pair gives us a funeral march and a wildly romantic “Stürm und Dräng” outcry, while the second pair offers the lyrical serenity of the Adagietto paired with the Finale’s jolly mock-academicism and ultimate paean of triumph. The emotional trajectory (without any specific program) is vast but coherent, culminating in one of Mahler’s most engaged and optimistic statements. It is a difficult work to perform, not only because of the superhuman physical demands it makes on the performers, but due to the challenge of finding an approach that can embrace the full range of experiences and attitudes expressed.

Mahler relies very heavily on his brasses in this symphony. It begins with a memorable, mordent fanfare on solo trumpet; there are halting, dotted rhythms from the low-voiced trombone choir throughout the first movement and out-cries for full brass section in the second. As mentioned, the solo horn dominates the Scherzo but there are many antiphonal exchanges between it and the other brasses along the way. They disappear in the Adagietto (for strings and harp only) and reappear in their normal role in the finale until they get to peal out with the climactic chorale, which I am convinced is Mahler’s version of “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (“How beautifully shines the morning star”), a favorite Lutheran hymn-tune.  As Stephen Ledbetter pointed out in the program notes, Mahler was heavily engaged in studying Bach the summer he wrote this symphony, and this last movement, which also cites “Der Kuckoo und der Nachtigall” is Mahler playing with academic counterpoint both for fun and ultimately for exaltation. The players were magnificent, particularly solo horn player James Sommerville; but in letting them play out continuously, Graf allowed the textures to become coarse, and my ears became satiated long before the end of the work. The lasting impression was that the players had physically exerted themselves to the utmost under the urgings of their conductor, leaving all concerned exhausted.

Christoph Eschenbach
Christoph Eschenbach

The contrast with the sound and experience of the next night was dramatic. Eschenbach, wiry, fully physically engaged in each moment (to the point of beating every single note in emphatic phrases) proved a volatile, dynamic presence and transformed not only the sound of the orchestra, but the meaning of the act of making music. His burning commitment to make meaning out of every note of the music, fully seconded by pianist Peter Serkin, found and exposed the human heart of Brahms’s music, both early and late. Where there were moments under Graf that sounded perfunctory or coarse, the orchestra produced unfailingly beautiful, meaningful playing for Eschenbach. The second theme of the concerto’s first movement as played by the strings has never sounded so warm and compassionate, coming after the traumatic opening (said to represent the trauma of Schumann’s attempted suicide). A similar warmth and humanity pervaded the finale of the last movement, starting with the change to major with the marching phrase in the bassoons: the character of that short moment, so crucial to the implied narrative, has not been so well captured, in my experience, since the recording that Fleisher and Szell made 48 years ago. These are randomly selected moments in an evening where almost any moment could be cited as revelatory. I have never heard the flute solo in the finale of the Fourth Symphony played with such fullness of lyrical expression (by Elizabeth Rowe), encouraged by Eschenbach who palmed his baton for the moment. Even the triangle, which normally adds sparkle to the triumphant sonorities of the symphony’s third movement, could be clearly heard tapping out the rhythmic motive. Each idea, phrase, textural configuration was given its voice and purpose.

Eschenbach’s concept of Brahms is deeply humane, even philosophical. This was was dramatically clear in the symphony, which may well have been inspired by the tragedies of Sophocles that Brahms was reading during its composition. Eschenbach’s articulation of the first theme, an endless chain of two-note motives in which each particle became a deeply-breathed sigh rather than a series of stoic utterances as it sometimes is rendered. Everywhere, transitions were emotional outgrowths of preceding statements, and the thorough attention to detail helped rather than hindered the unfolding of a powerful tonal architecture. This was not fussy detail; it achieved cumulative intensity by thorough articulation and careful linkage. Such an approach lent unique power in this unique symphony: the final Chaconne (based on a Bach cantata pattern) consists of a rigid scheme of eight-bar harmonic phrases, but their concatenation was laid out by the musicians with enormous flexibility, giving each its due and but again providing an inexorable emotional logic leading first to the quiet soulful prayer of the solo flute and then on to the inescapable tragic apocalypse. The work moved forward impelled not by a mechanical rhythmic scheme but by an inexorable chain of emotional states, each giving birth to the next.

Orion Weiss’s Mozart concerto was a thoroughly prepared performance that not even loud rain could disrupt; it’s delicacy would have benefited from a smaller hall and more generous acoustics, as well as from more spontaneous interchange with the orchestra. His cadenza to the first movement was my favorite part. Mozart based much of this movement on a little march theme, almost a children’s tune, that would fit perfectly in “The Magic Flute.” The entire development is based upon it, including some amazing eight-part counterpoint that flowers from it like a miracle. Weiss (I’m assuming it was his own cadenza) continued to develop the theme contrapuntally, at one point changing it (in the left hand) at the eighth note to reveal that it was actually “La Marseillaise!” The wit was enjoyed by those who “got it”—what we also got (confirmed by a visit to the pianist’s web-site) is that this is a profoundly playful artist full of joie de vivre. I hope to hear a lot more from him.

Caspar David Friedrich, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, oil on canvas, Kunsthalle Hamburg.
Caspar David Friedrich, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, oil on canvas, Kunsthalle Hamburg.

Peter Serkin’s Brahms, on the other hand, felt not prepared but lived completely in the moment. Each one felt like a fresh inspiration, and the intensity with which the pianist and conductor (and orchestra!) played off each other could not possibly be rehearsed. Both performers were happy to create a new tempo for each musical idea, sometimes several for a single phrase. This is very old-fashioned, almost as old as Brahms himself. That means that it could be historically correct performance practice. We know from very old recordings that this is how it was done before Toscanini came along, and that kind of variability can also be heard in recordings of Fürtwangler, Mengelberg, and the conductor whom Eschenbach called to mind, Mitropoulos. But Serkin plus Eschenbach did not feel as if they were involved in a re-creation of any kind: it was hot-off-the-griddle creation which paradoxically brought us face to face with Brahms. This concerto is a very long, somewhat rambling and youthful work that went through many incarnations before Brahms let it out into the world. A notorious 1962 performance (it can be found on CD) by Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein was so slow that the conductor issued a verbal disclaimer from the podium that still shocks us; listening to it feels like we have somehow wandered into a lost Bruckner piano concerto, and a not very good one at that—the connecting tissue is too distended and we lose track of the structure and its tensions. It may be that Serkin-Eschenbach’s performance (of the first movement, at any rate) occupied the same amount of time as Gould-Bernstein’s. It seemed huge, vast, epochal; I was going to write monumental (because it kind of goes with those other qualities) but that is what it was not—it was deeply personal, like Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.” Despite that, its structural tensions did not get lost; they were somehow always a part of the intense reactions to each moment, which felt motivated by an awareness of exactly where the performers were in the larger journey.

Forty years ago, such performances were viewed negatively as “wayward,” “self-indulgent,” and “dated.” Strict-tempo, classically constrained, crystal-clear approaches were the way it was supposed to be. (Peter’s father, Rudolf, came under the spell of Toscanini and struggled with that method for much of his career.—Ed.) That Fleisher-Szell recording I mentioned earlier allows you to hear how good such performances could be, and there are still superb artists who play this way. They can be as alert, vivid, and in-the-moment as the one described above. But I am happy that there are no longer any orthodoxies that rule out such flexible, spontaneous, and almost outrageous performing possibilities. Eschenbach is still described as “controversial.” I now understand that that is a good thing to be—when people sit up and take notice, they will discover something worth noticing.

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