Brahms: Andres, Nathan, Nelsons, Grimaud. Boston Symphony Orchestra, Nov. 8 through 19
A Brahms cycle—all four symphonies and both piano concertos, in addition to a pair of inspired commissions—which began on Nov. 8 and runs through this evening—showed the Boston Symphony Orchestra ready to explore the past and incorporate the future as well.
Both the past and the future seem secure—but need some additional exploration as well.
The commissions came from two Americans, Eric Nathan (“the space of the door,” performed Nov. 8-12), and Timo Andres (“Everything Happens So Much,” Nov. 15-19). The concertos were performed by Hélène Grimaud. Andris Nelsons conducted the cycle.
Both commissions were modest in length—as it was, paired with a concerto and a symphony each night, the concerts were quite long. Both programs had energy.
Two aspects defined Nathan’s “the space of the door”: the use of asynchronous strings, adding a wild luster to the normally unified front-of-orchestra sound; and the grab and release of tension. The tumultuous strings, and a wild middle section, caused chaos; many moments were placid and still, very fragile.
Its relationship to Brahms was purely musicological: Nathan pointed out a rising minor third, which he incorporates, coming from a similar horn interval in the second symphony. This idea develops into harmonic gestures, but those comparisons are undetectable in performance.
No matter: although the piece seems unfinished, in that it could easily become a movement (or inspiration itself) for a longer work—because of its blast of ideas—it was a terrific concert opener: startling, idiosyncratic, and alluring.
Timo Andres’ “Everything Happens So Much” really worked at first hearing. (Nathan derived his title from the energy of an old library; Andres from a Twitter feed.) This commission’s relationship to Brahms stood at an even further remove—mainly contrapuntal—although its prefigurations in the first dozen or so bars were remarkably similar to prefigurations in the B-flat piano concerto.
For Andres, a V-shaped arpeggio, in the piccolo, is contextualized by the same arpeggio—instead rising and falling—in English horn, all in the first dozen measures. That figure, along with repeated and clever fanfare activity in the horns, defines “Everything Happens So Much.”
Because of this accessible opening, all the complicated energy that follows seems understandable.
Percussive chords from the piano, continued horn figures, a calmer sections where the strings redefine the opening scales, a loud tutti section—and then the outro, where the piece does not end, but vanishes—all of it hinges upon the opening. Although it had the same length as Eric Nathan’s commission, Andres’ piece seemed complete, one satisfying unit, and not the possible antecedent of a more complex work.
Both of Brahms piano concertos are monsters. Not entirely in the virtuosic sense—there is that. But the unrelenting demands upon the soloist to articulate changing ideas creates a challenging listening and performing environment.
Grimaud creates her own artistry. It seemed that she didn’t want to respond to Brahms’ demands, but to make the work her own. Her playing was intense, studied; there were many phrases that seemed inarticulate to this listener, but were probably being formed in the way the artist intended. Both concertos were curious events—hardly overwhelming, as those concertos can be.
I had hoped to see both performances a second time, to resolve some doubts. An assignment intervened that kept me from hearing the first concerto again, and then Grimaud took ill and canceled after performing the B-flat concerto, changing the program.
Just a general thought about the symphonies (the aforementioned assignment kept me from hearing the second): Nelsons was afire conducting these works. Pairing Brahms with commissions added a luster of re-interpretation to the two weeks of concerts, but this was about Brahms.
And, apparently, about Nelsons’ facility with this music. And his devotion to it. The BSO has made strides toward the essential practice of making new music, but this music director will preserve the orchestra’s pre-eminent position as an interpreter of the classics—make no doubt. The focus may shift to the music that Nelsons loves—Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich, and after this, Brahms—but the classics are here to stay.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting, concludes its Brahms cycle Saturday evening. With soloist Hélène Grimaud ill, the final program will likely include the third and fourth symphonies, along with Timo Andres’ “Everything Happens So Much.” Check www.bso.org to be certain.