Serkin brings out the lyric intimacy of Brahms concerto with BSO

November 27, 2013 at 1:23 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Peter Serkin performs Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with Rafael Frubeck de Burgos and the BSO Tuesday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Sam Brewer

In its expansive length and scope, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat merges two musical worlds.  The knuckle-busting arpeggios and filigree that pepper its four movements add a touch of Lisztian showmanship. Yet it’s the intimate, chamber-like dialogue that gives the work its lasting charm and popularity.

That is clearly an aspect of this music that Peter Serkin knows inside and out, manifest in his performance of the concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at Symphony Hall. Serkin’s reading was thoroughly sensitive, deliberate, and shapely in expression. At the podium, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the BSO in capable and, at times, excellent accompaniment.

The best moments came with the concerto’s generous duets and trios, which achieved a Mozartean grace. Serkin’s soft-toned, twinkling accompaniment matched solo flute and oboe phrases. He added weight for warm waves of arpeggios to answer soli strings.  The opening horn and piano dialogue floated in as if from a dream. Principal cellist Jules Eskin’s solo in the third movement was equally affecting, his tone flush with silvery warmth. Serkin answered with ghostly phrases that swelled into lines of lush grandeur before dying away again. The final movement frolicked in the relaxed flow of Frühbeck’s tempo, the sighing motives of the second theme swaying gently between soloist and orchestra.

But given the concerto’s inherent romantic flair, the performance wasn’t always the most riveting one. The Scherzo could have used more power and passion from the orchestra. Cellos and basses, for example, did not answer Serkin’s opening charge with the same fury and focus. Brahms’ earth-shifting syncopation and force, as a result, came off mushy and undefined. When these roles are reversed later in the movement, Serkin was the one to make amends, responding with firm and resonant touch.

The BSO made up for the low-octane Brahms with a fluent and mostly polished reading of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony following intermission.

The Seventh, like the Fifth, is marked by rhythmic vitality and perpetual drive. Wagner referred to the work as “the apotheosis of the dance.”

And through Frühbeck’s energetic direction, dance this music did. Following a stately introduction, the first movement’s gig-like theme took off in a healthy gallop. The second movement, the jewel of the setting, beamed from lovely countermelodies that spun from the music’s grounding rhythm. The five-part scherzo laughed from nimble string and wind playing. Save for one unfortunate crack in the French horn, the trio glowed with pastoral warmth. Frühbeck opened the throttle for a brisk and lean finale, the swirling string lines and biting brass accents added the finishing touches.

The program repeats 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 617-266-1492

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