Jaap van Zweden Conducts the BSO in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Emanuel Ax

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Jaap van Zweden. Photo © Bert Hulselmans.
Jaap van Zweden. Photo © Bert Hulselmans.

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall
February 9, 2012, Thursday 8:00 pm

Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano

Beethoven ‑ Piano Concerto No. 2
Rachmaninoff ‑ Symphony No. 2

Last summer two extraordinary new conductors made their Tanglewood debuts, both of whom are former concertmasters, the Finn John Storgårds and Jaap van Zweden, who held the post at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Both enjoyed enormous successes. Van Zweden, now around fifty, turned to conducting in his mid-thirties (after a career concertmaster of the Concertgebouw from the age of eighteen!), and soon came into important music directorships in the Netherlands, those of the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in Hilversum. Since his appointment as Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 2008, he has been making sparks fly in the U.S. with his electric interpretations and the quality of playing he elicits from the orchestras he conducts. Regrettably, I missed his BSO debut in the Music Shed, but I did hear him conduct the TMC Orchestra, in a concert which was unforgettable, not only for van Zweden’s Tchaikovsky Fourth, I must mention, but for the Leonore Overture No. 3 led by Tanglewood Conducting Fellow Ken-David Masur—an expansive, large-orchestra reading, which gave the work all the majesty it deserves, not to mention his thrilling handling of the “Great Dissonance” and the expressive, if not always precise wind playing.

But it is Jaap van Zweden we are concerned with here. Although Keith Kibler has already written a few words about that TMCO concert, I’d like to add something, since the impression Mr. van Zweden made on me in Symphony Hall with the BSO was in some ways rather different from the first contact, not least because of the bright, immediate acoustics of Ozawa Hall. I was and still am impressed by his work there, because I was excited, instructed, and moved by it, although it is in a style I have looked at with some disfavor in the past.

In the 1960s, in my first passion for classical music and opera, the Toscanini cult was still in full force, as was the legacy of Richard Strauss as conductor through George Szell. Fast, inflexible tempi were everywhere, along with a fetish for literalistic readings of scores and insane hyper-precision in ensemble. Toscanini’s North American career coincided with the cult of the machine, after all, and his naive ideas of truth to the composer’s score acquired an extra-musical aura from his role in wartime propaganda events.  Erich Leinsdorf was typical of the Toscaninian epigoni and Toscaninianism also reared its head as the demon Rudolf Serkin and others struggled with. It was above all in conversation that it seemed especially doctrinal. As I was attempting to learn from knowledegable people, I constantly heard Charles Munch,  Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, and Leonard Bernstein disparaged in these terms. It was clear to me, as it can appear especially to a neophyte, that there was something lacking in this limited approach to one of the supreme areas of human creation: it was mechanistic, superficial, and philistine.

I was fortunate to have grown up a New Yorker and to have discovered Discophile, the unique record store on West 8th Streeet as a boy. There I found the recordings of Hans Kanpperstsbusch, Willem Mengelberg, and above all Wilhelm Furtwängler, most of which were only available in the U.S. as imports, as well as people who understood them. Furtwängler is inimitable, and no conductor has succeeded in adopting his methods. Daniel Barenboim, a Klemperer protégé, once tried, but, fortunately for him, he soon learned to follow his own idiosyncratic temperament, becoming instead an effective promoter of the old central European tradition, and Furtwängler and an interpreter and composer. James Levine, as he matured, brought it into his music-making as well, especially in Wagner. In the mean time, of course, I’ve heard Toscanini’s wonderful Salzburg Meistersinger and Falstaff, his Beethoven Symphony cycle with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony, and his Brahms symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra, all of which show him at his best, and I’ll no longer cast any stones.

Today, those taut, rapid tempi and tightly restrained or nonexistent rubati have all but disappeared, and I was unprepared for Jaap van Zweden’s rapid, taut, and revelatory Tchaikovsky Fourth, which has always seemed to me to be something of a problem piece. His steady, animated tempi and carefully considered, restrained approach to the differences in tempo gave the symphony an organic unity across all four movements it rarely seems to have. In the slow movement, he put the odd wind flourishes into order, weaving them into a coherent system of statement and response, and, not least, the last movement was terrifically exciting—and yes, loud—without seeming bombastic. In spite of the fast tempi, everything was clearly articulated and one could hear all the inner details. The TMC Orchestra, which many Tanglewood regulars prefer to the BSO, outdid even their usual unique standards, and one could see that playing for Jaap van Zweden was a unique experience for them which they will carry with them throughout their careers. More than of Toscanini I was reminded of the great Erich Kleiber, who, although he developed in the German-Viennese tradition, sufficiently favored something like the Toscaninian esthetic to become a regular guest conductor with the NBC Symphony. Oddly enough, van Zweden bears a distinct physical resemblance to Erich Kleiber. In any case, I’ll remember that performance as one of a handful of the best, all the more, since it harks back to a performance style I once on the whole rejected.

It seems likely that that first impression will only be the core for many hearings of Jaap van Zweden’s art which will overlay it in the future, and now here is his Symphony Hall debut, devoted primarily to Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, a work with eccentricities and problems similar to those of the Tchaikovsky Fourth.

The concert began with Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, played by an old friend of the house, Emanuel Ax, and it was in this that I immediately began to notice something in van Zweden’s accompaniment I hadn’t heard before—nothing bad nor good (to my mind), but interesting and significant. Unlike the brilliant and direct sound of the TMCO, he was introducing an element of luxury to his orchestral palate. The fairly sizeable group of strings he employed provided a rich upholstered sound, in which winds were surprisingly recessive, given what we’re used to hearing in the post-early-music approach to the eighteenth century orchestra. Woodwinds and horns were very much blent into a tawny, leather-like string body one usually associates with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I wasn’t about to forget I was in Symphony Hall listening to the home orchestra, but the sound is unmistakeable. Van Zweden had in fact brought the first and second violins together at the right and positioned the violas to the left, in front of the cello section. They seemed to be holding their instruments high and projecting their sound to the maximum—and they were, much to my delight, prominent in the blend. Van Zweden had clearly decided that the proper accompaniment for Ax’s elegant, understated playing was an equally elegant, smoothly blended sonority. Beethoven’s youthful concerto could not have been more neatly put together, within the framework of a modern American virtuoso orchestra and Emanual Ax’s immaculate white-glove treatment. I appreciated every near-perfect bar, but at this moment in my musical life, I’d find it more rewarding to hear Kristian van Bezuidenhout dig his knuckles into a fortepiano with a smaller, grittier period band. For that matter I’ve heard Mr. Ax play the fortepiano very well, and he’s often at his best when the accompaniment plays against him a little more aggressively. The short  Schubert piece he played as an encore made for a pretty performance, following mainly the melodic line, but it was too fast and efficient. Here, Ax ventured into territories he just managed to avoid in the concerto: it was slick, and I’d rather not have had to listen to it. 1

If the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony has been cast under any kind of shadow, it’s because his music was at its most popular at a time when audiences weren’t used to symphonies of quite that length (just shy of an hour), and many conductors decided to deal with the problem through cuts—which is ruinous in any kind of symphony. Fortunately that’s rarely if at all done today. Van Zweden approached it with the same rich string sound he used in the concerto and the same hint of luxury, but with clear textures. Winds also emerged from behind the chastely luxuriant strings. Nonetheless, all the textures were extremely clear, due to the differentiated, pure timbre of each string section (Mr. van Zweden is a specialist, after all!), and if one is to enjoy Rachmaninoff’s splendid symphony, one should really be able to hear what he wrote, and all of it. After the brilliant Tchaikovsky Fourth I was a little surprised by the soft sonorities and restrained brass in this performance, but it served well, better than well: balances and dynamics were all in the right proportion, so that one could feel the emotional power of Rachmaninoff’s heartfelt melodies and harmonies. Jaap van Zweden kept the music in motion, and he avoided creating sentimental gestures by lingering, but it was not a wilfully tight performance. He gave the music plenty of room to breathe, and nothing ever seemed rushed or over-controlled. The melodies could sing over crisp rhythms and open textures. The Schubertian expanse of the first subject of the first movement could not have been more sensitively turned, and the contrast of the slow movement not more poignantly marked. Everything was right in van Zweden’s reading. One couldn’t hear this seductive music more compellingly performed.

And Boston audiences got to hear one of the more eligible candidates for the music directorship. The sound he produced from the orchestra is not so far different from Munch’s, and Friday and Saturday nights sold out. Not bad. I could certainly hear Jaap van Zweden’s work very happily on a regular basis.

  1. I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t know that Mr. Ax is capable of superb Schubert interpretations. See my review of his all-Schubert recital at Alice Tully Hall.
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