Previn and Ax Merge Insight, Resolve
Boston Symphony Orchestra
André Previn, guest conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano
The summer concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) at Tanglewood have made a practice of bringing together exceptional performers. Last Saturday's program was no exception, as André Previn and Emanuel Ax joined the orchestra.
Ravel's "Tombeau de Couperin" suite opened the program by exhibiting the best qualities of today's BSO. Under Music Director Seiji Ozawa's baton, the orchestra always excels in the playing of modern French masterworks. Add to that experience the wit and insight of Previn, and the result cannot help but please.
The Suite's Prelude began with the freely flowing phrasing of oboist Alfred Genovese, who discarded the mantra-like, beat-conscious playing one often hears in favor of a more natural mood. Previn's motions were minimal and expressive, drawing cues out of the orchestra rather than grabbing them. This method resulted in slightly missed timing once or twice, but the total effect was etheral--the music became removed from the orchestra as it sought its own course.
The opening of the Forlane was not as jarring in its jubilation as one might have hoped. In fact, it almost forecast the easy-going promenade that composed the middle of the movement. That section best demonstrated the BSO's ability to sound civilized and serene, hovering lightly in a soft dynamic register.
Genovese carried this feeling into the Menuet as he rode gently above the strings' smoothness. By the end of the movement, the audience had heard the full dynamic range of the strings. And finally, in the Rigaudon, Previn elicited a bit of the flaunting playfulness missing from the Forlane.
The program continued with Henri Dutilleux's Symphony No. 2 from 1959, "Le Double," for large orchestra and chamber orchestra. Here was a symphony embodying many of the most favored textures and planar forms in this decade's classical music. When one considers that Dutilleux, who walked onstage to accept an ovation after the performance, was once a contemporary of Shostakovich, the character of his work becomes all the more remarkable.
At its inception, the first movement takes the form of a large crescendo made of several building sequences. Each sequence in this Animato, ma serioso begins thinly and eventually stops, giving way to another one with a greater endpoint. The music itself shimmers and sparkles with the addition of a harpsichord and celeste, though its edges are not completely smooth.
Previn sprang into action for the symphony, directing more vigorously than he had in the Ravel. In the second movement, which is predicated on rumbling rotations around a handful of pitches, Previn admirably prevented the BSO from sounding cumbersome. The eerie series of suggestions from the winds and keyboard instruments was neatly enveloped by the strings' rolling momentum.
The finale, marked Allegro fuocoso--Calmato, recalled some of Bernstein and Gould's jazzy forays in `classical' music as it travelled along in an odd meter. This movement produced a new but equally otherwordly sound bolstered by the BSO's surprisingly powerful (in this instance) brass section. The net effect of the symphony, as full of fresh ideas today as it must have seemed in 1959, was not bemusement but rather awe and fascination.
After intermission, Ax joined the orchestra for a predictably fine performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major. Brahms did not begin composing this concerto in four movements as a symphony, as he had with his first concerto, but the piece lacks none of the grandeur of the symphonic form.
Ax's first phrases, following the famous horn solo, did not contain the emphasis usually accorded to them; in the context of historical performances, they appeared routine. But momentousness was, in general, not his goal. The defining trait of Ax's playing on Saturday was a striking immediacy. Rather than using time to create intense emotional drama, as Sviatoslav Richter did in his landmark 1960 performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorg, Ax manifested an incessant urge to build in an efficient and almost austere manner.
This effect, often attributed to performances of Brahms by Rudolf Serkin, was not accompanied by Serkin's occasional dryness. Ax smoothed over transitions between sections rather than making them stark, resulting in a resolute and self-assured delivery. That purposefulness continued in the second section of the first movement, in which Previn added some time for emphasis in the orchestra's tuttis.
The immediacy of Ax's playing extended into the stirring second movement, an Andante in contrast to traditional symphonic and concerto structures. Here Previn could have added some bite to the strings' releases in keeping with Ax's sharp interpretation. Hopeless romantics might have demanded more time in the springlike second section (especially in the chorale-like slow passage reminiscent of Brahms' First Symphony), but Previn joined Ax in propelling the piece forward.
The slow third movement with its melodic but firm cello solos evinced a less single-minded quality in Ax's playing. He often employed a rich, pedaled texture that brought to mind his unhurried and comforting playing of Beethoven's early chamber music.
The finale returned the BSO to its buoyant promenade-like mode. Ax supplied plenty of exuberance, some perhaps at the cost of the movement's customary nonchalance. The sections resembling the finale of Brahms' Serenade No. 1 in D Major conveyed a perfect innocence, lifting the emotional burden of the journey in the most pleasant way. In all, the performance had been a ride with Ax as driver rather than an emotional outpouring.