Brahms in Good Hands

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Herbert Blomstedt conducting Brahms 4 with BSO. Photo Hilary Scott.
Herbert Blomstedt conducting Brahms 4 with BSO. Photo Hilary Scott.

Tanglewood, Sunday, August 15, 2021

Brahms Violin Concerto in D, op. 77 and Symphony no. 4 in E minor, op. 98

Leonidas Kavakos, violin, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Herbert Blomstedt

Traditionally, the BSO’s Tanglewood season concludes with a performance Beethoven’s Ninth, an overplayed sound-track triggering optimistic images of brotherhood and the profound goodness of the human heart. The mere fact that this became a ritual has drained it of musical significance—which has been replaced by its function as an ambiguous signifier; it has been pulled out to celebrate great occasions, cultural and political movements of all stripes, including by the Nazis.

An unintended but positive consequence of the pandemic is the breaking of stale habits; this year, the season ended early, without its usual warhorse. In its place were other compositions that can seem like warhorses themselves, since they are played so often in concert halls. But after a year of no live performances, and in the right hands, Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Fourth Symphony can still catch a listener off-guard and ambush him with their power and humanity.

The right hands in this case were those of Herbert Blomstedt, whose praises I sang last week in my review of his performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony with the TMC Orchestra.There I mentioned that his primary instruments were his arms and his face, but I omitted another important component: his hands. Since the Tanglewood press office favored me with a seat in the fifth row left, I had a bird’s eye view of the performers from close up, and could see how much eloquence resided in the hand gestures of the 94 year old conductor.I could also see that the smallest flick of a wrist or turn of a palm could catch the attention of horn-players 30 feet away, and produce instantaneous responses in the entire orchestra, whose eyes were glued on these hands. There was never a routine beat or bar; every moment was part of a shape within a larger shape within the entire composition, and nothing escaped the sharp eyes and ears of the conductor. After conducting, without intermission, two massive works, each around 40 minutes, there was no sign of fatigue; the energy that he poured into the music was poured back by the players and thoroughly imbibed. There was no counterfeiting the delight that showed on all faces—including orchestra and audience.

Kavakos’s Brahms concerto was spacious and affectionate. I had described his work with Yo-yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax a few weeks ago at their Beethoven concert as a bit less romantic than his colleagues’.That performance did not prepare me for his rich, generous tone and flexible tempos which he used to shape the phrases and sections, not in a self-indulgent or reflexive way, but one which had a thorough intellectual grasp of the structure of the music. This meant that when he stretched a transitional moment it was done so as to lead into the next phrase purposefully, stitching Brahms’s very diverse material together to display the overall dramatic arc.The continuity of Kavakos’s thinking was clear in the way that he passed his melodic line directly to the first violins, not only musically but also by turning his eyes and body toward them as he handed the music off; and also by the way he sometimes played along with them so as to participate actively in the flow from solo to tutti.For a conductor to follow such a flexible performance takes a kind of ESP to keep the forces coordinated. Blomstedt knows that it takes a micro-second for the orchestra to react to the little flick or twitch he gives for an accent; when he brings them in exactly when the soloist arrives at the end of a stretched phrase, a moment outside the flow of rhythm, as for example at the end of the cadenza, the conductor has to twitch the micro-second before that arrival, a moment that cannot be measured. The conductor had the orchestra spot on each time—it was mesmerizing to watch this perfectly accomplished, and without a baton.

Blomstedt had led the Fourth Symphony with the TMC Orchestra three years ago. In my review of that performance, I wrote “He did not micro-manage the orchestra, mostly addressing it as whole and gaining a rich, unified sonority from the players who responded alertly to every variation in his gestures. Blomstedt looked like a Prospero commanding the waves of the sea, first to rise higher, then to subside.” While that was a totally satisfying performance, the one with the BSO was even more so; I got to see closeup that it was, in fact, micro-managed, through the subtlest of gestures, meant to be seen only by the players. As with the violin concerto, there was great flexibility of tempo without any feeling that the momentum was being shredded; the pace was governed by “breath rhythm,” the timing of regular breathing that applies particularly to the very lyrical first two movements. In contrast, Blomstedt unleashed an almost brutal third movement, reveling in the robust orchestration, sudden accents, and syncopations.I have never before heard this movement sounding so much like one of the Hungarian Dances; and yet with all the Dionysian frenzy, not a note was out of place.

The passacaglia fourth movement often suggests a pre-determined fate playing itself out, despite the warmth of the middle section with its slow ritual dance for the flute or its consoling chorale for the trombone.In other hands, the final moments can seem like the Furies slamming the door of Time on a departing soul; but somehow Blomstedt was able to impart a sense of celebration to this apparently grim conclusion.The joy of making the music trumped any programmatic meaning that one might be tempted to impose on it; this was reflected in the look of delight on Blomstedt’s face as the heavy hemiolas of the final variation gave way to the true tempo, liberating the meter and permitting the final sprint to the finish.The flute solo was gorgeously performed but without any self-indulgence—it maintained a hint of austerity that connected it to the surrounding sections; and the trombones intoned the chorale not as an alien moment (shining a golden light into the gloom) but as a communal experience.These moments of color represented the collective voice of the orchestra as a whole, and ultimately, the vision of the conductor who convinced us that the diversity and unity of humanity were complementary ethical forces—convinced us, at least, for that all-too-brief moment.

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