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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Relax. Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tuesday, Nov. 22, at Symphony Hall.

 Music director Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven' First Piano Concerto, with soloist Rudolf Buchbinder, Tuesday, Nov. 22. Hilary Scott photograph.

Music director Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven' First Piano Concerto, with soloist Rudolf Buchbinder, Tuesday, Nov. 22. Hilary Scott photograph.

Physical histrionics often distract from music-making. That’s why it was such a pleasure to hear two performances that allowed an emphasis on the music—and not the music-maker’s efforts—at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s program Tuesday evening in Symphony Hall.

One of those performers was pianist Rudolf Buchbinder—the German pianist, who offered Beethoven’s first concerto. The other, surprisingly, was the BSO’s normally demonstrative Andris Nelsons, who led his musicians assertively, but with unexpected reserve, in Bruckner’s fourth symphony.

Buchbinder, well into his 70s, offered an antidote to the marvelously gifted contortionists of the new pianistic generation—the likes of Trifonov, and Yuja—who seem unlikely to be performing at the highest level five decades from now, as Buchbinder is. 

Conductors too are guilty of over-acting—Nelsons is a prime example, and Dudamel does the same thing. They will no doubt mellow—Bernstein did.

The music-making is what matters, and Buchbinder’s concerto was inviting and cerebral—with every trill, forte and forceful expression delivered as required. Apart from the measured approach, and beautiful posture, a prodigious left hand was on display. Clarity of phrasing. The listening—especially in the striking clarinet duet (piano blocking the view: if it wasn’t principal William Hudgins, apologies), the highlight of the slow movement. The supercharge he put into the opening of the rondo. 

The performance of Bruckner was even more surprising. Nelsons will never be Haitink, but for this performance—full of crescendos and explosions of brass—he was at his most relaxed. He even spent quite a number of measures at one juncture in the slow movement doing absolutely nothing. 

Not that he wasn’t involved. He visibly admonished the horns in the Scherzo for aggressive playing, then gave them a thumb’s up when the same passage came around in the repeat.

The composer’s subtitle for this symphony, “Romantic,” seems inappropriate. Rather than Romantic excesses, it is a work of balance and proportion. 

Sure the horns (James Sommerville earns extra French horn credit for this performance) are never far away. But grand gestures are matched equally with subtle ones—even right down to the final cadence, which seems like it will explode into a frenzy, but simply works its way to the home key, and stops.

This symphony is a pastorale. The sound is rural—a hunt looms continually. And it follows a sure path from its opening notes: all flats, B to E and back, then repeated but closing up a half step. That unsteady triangle has all the balance and tension Bruckner needs for this symphony.

This hour swept by. Many aspects stood out: certainly the horns and winds. A unison viola section melody, accompanied only by string pizzicato, was blissfully repeated in the slow movement. 

 

CADENCES: Why did Buchbinder not appear with the BSO for three decades? (1986, with Jeffrey Tate, then next in 2014, with Thierry Fischer.) He makes two appearances at Tanglewood next summer, with the orchestra and with the chamber players. 

The Tanglewood season has been announced, and as to be expected, features lots of Bernstein, whose actually 100th birthday would have been next August. Best wishes to Kim Noltemy, who leaves the BSO as COO after two decades for a position with the Dallas Symphony.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting, performs Beethoven first piano concerto (Rudolf Buchbinder) and Bruckner’s fourth symphony on Friday afternoon and Saturday evening. 888-266-1200; bso.org

Run Amoc. American Modern Opera Company begins its first residency.

The Criers’ ABCs. “The Blue Hour,” Nov. 10, Jordan Hall.

The Criers’ ABCs. “The Blue Hour,” Nov. 10, Jordan Hall.