Haitink closes BSO season energetically with Pires’ Mozart the highlight

May 1, 2015 at 1:11 pm

By David Wright

Maria João Pires performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with Bernard Haitink and the BSO Thursday night. Photo: Robert Torres

Having charmed and beguiled Boston Symphony Orchestra audiences last week with French-accented concerts, Bernard Haitink led the orchestra’s season-closing program Thursday night by driving the BSO briskly through the heartland of German Romanticism.

As happened last week, Mozart was the foil to the concert’s main business. A lively performance of that composer’s tender-hearted Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, with Maria João Pires as soloist, provided a breather between ambitious works of Schumann and Brahms.

The ambition of Schumann’s Manfred Overture lies not in its size—a fairly concise allegro framed by a slow introduction and coda—but in its emotional scope. By all accounts, the composer was deeply moved by Byron’s verse drama of the guilt-ridden magician who withdrew to a remote crag to confront his demons, and worked intensely on orchestral music to accompany a reading of the poem.

This encounter of two of the arch-Romantics of the age would seem to promise great things, and students of Schumann’s works have admired the Manfred music for its searching, probing character. However, the two artists’ temperaments were so drastically different—Byron the passionate man of action, Schumann the whimsical and vulnerable dreamer—that the composed Manfred can sound somewhat pallid compared to the original.

And so he did in Thursday’s performance of the work’s overture, moved smartly along by Haitink’s steady beat, rarely pausing for reflection. The monotony of Schumann’s orchestration—an unfortunate trait of all his orchestral works–was fully on display, relieved only by the occasional wind solo and a fine tune featuring the violas and cellos. A generally well-coordinated performance was marred by tentative playing in winds and brass.

Although the performance could have had more impact, the programming idea of pairing Schumann’s tormented Alpine magician with the Brahms of the First Symphony, agonizing on his symphonic mountaintop, was an inspired one.

But first, a concerto. Not, thank goodness, Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1, whose feeling of titanic struggle might have been àpropos but which had already been heard in this BSO season, but rather the most amiable (one might almost say Schumannesque) of Mozart’s piano concertos.

Haitink led off the A major Concerto with a no-nonsense exposition of themes, but under the influence of soloist Pires’s electric touch and shapely phrases spun out in long arcs, the orchestra’s performance took on three dimensions as well. The tender second theme, with its chromatic swoon, was especially expressive under the pianist’s fingers, and she fully embraced the Schumann-like idea that a solo cadenza can be a poetic interlude, not just a display of technique.

Long arc and poetry also characterized the Adagio, which was meditative but never meandering, as Pires deployed countless shades of piano and pianissimo (not including mushy) to expressive effect. Responding to her exquisite phrasing, the orchestra swelled with expression when called upon; woodwinds gleamed and, this being Mozart, even chuckled a few times.

The finale was treated as a romp, and Pires’s poised, articulate playing was the embodiment of Mozartean sparkle. The steady tempo buoyed one along, but it also left some shifting moods and an impish moment or two standing on the dock. Still, there was enthusiastic and well-deserved applause at the end for Pires, who was making a long-delayed return to the BSO after having been something of a favorite here in the 1990s.

Haitink opened the Brahms symphony fast and aggressively, interpreting the marking Un poco sostenuto as “Hardly at all sostenuto,” and the brass honked at the start of the Allegro like cars in traffic. This is not your grandfather’s Brahms, the 86-year-old maestro seemed to be saying. Whatever the merits of this approach, his quest for momentum tended to blur the contrast between athletic bounding-around in severe C minor and tender moments in major keys.

Variety of mood and color improved when Haitink (unlike many conductors) took the indicated repeat of the first movement’s exposition, and the development built steadily to a passionate climax and a stunning C minor resolution to launch the recapitulation. The conductor’s energy and focus seemed to increase as the long movement unfolded.

The Andante sostenuto was indeed sustained, and sonorous as well with deep strings and glowing horns. Haitink also kept this music moving, and on a rather even keel, but he did pause to smell the flowers now and then, and maintained a mood of dignified tenderness, never allowing passion to get out of hand. One did wish he would follow pianist Pires’s example and cultivate pianissimo in the closing bars, so that concertmaster Malcolm Lowe wouldn’t have to force the lovely violin solo to be heard.

Fast tempos imparted a light touch to the Allegretto’s clarinet theme and a nice bounce and sweep to the middle section. William R. Hudgins’s expressive clarinet playing wasn’t heard to advantage at this speed, and some nice details of accompaniment and counterpoint were blurred.

The last movement opened in a Manfred-like miasma of tension and fury, broken by the horn’s heavenly benediction (which is marked forte—but not forced, as the player once again had to do over a too-loud orchestra). Uncertainty about the fast tempo seemed to throw the famous march theme a little out of kilter, but soon enough Brahms had the orchestra tearing the theme to bits and recombining them in dense counterpoint, all rendered with vigor, clarity, and inexorable forward motion. The orchestra’s blend seemed to settle in at last, and as the symphony marched on to its rather insistently joyful finish, one could have hardly asked for a Brahms sound more full, balanced, and rich in detail.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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