Dohnányi leads BSO in colorful premiere, intense Bartók

November 13, 2015 at 11:58 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Jean-Frederic Neuberger and Christoph von Dohnanyi acknowledge applause following the world premiere of Neuberger's "Aube by the BSO Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Liza Voll

Jean-Frederic Neuberger and Christoph von Dohnanyi acknowledge applause following the world premiere of Neuberger’s “Aube” by the BSO Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Liza Voll

The past month has seen its fair share of new music from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. October brought a vivid performance of Sebastian Currier’s Divisions, and last week Unsuk Chin’s Mannequin made an impressive American premiere.

Thursday night’s concert brought yet another new work, Jean-Frédéric Neuburger’s Aube, led in its world premiere by Christoph von Dohnányi.

Dohnányi has worked with Neuburger, who also doubles as a pianist, on several occasions in the past and approached BSO artistic administrator Tony Fogg about commissioning a work from the young composer for the BSO.

It was a bold and ultimately rewarding decision, for Aube, dedicated to the conductor, proved a worthy piece that deserves repeated hearings.

The 28-year-old composer is largely self-taught. Neuburger draws inspiration from a wide range of composers, from Ravel and Debussy to Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Dutilleux.

Aube (“Dawn”) reflects all of those influences and more. The heart of the work is its transparent use of shifting textures, where sheets of wind and string sonorities glide in and out of each other at a glacial pace.

Aube is also particularly colorful in its large orchestration, which includes a sizable percussion section. Listening to this piece is akin to encountering electronic music. Neuburger achieves such a sound world by calling for extended techniques among the instrumentalists. Throughout, the score is abuzz with low snarls of the bass-clarinet, violent snaps of double-bass strings, and the slow rumble of a thunder sheet.

Neuburger’s score is clearly a piece that Dohnányi believes in as he led the musicians in a sturdy account to make a strong case for the work. Aube is a bold and colorful score from a young composer to watch.

Filling out the concert’s first half was Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta.

Even eighty years after its composition, Bartók’s sinuous piece still has the power to shock. There’s much to admire in this famous score, the cerebral logic of the opening fugue, the ear-bending harmonies, and the pulsing dance rhythms of the finale.

Dohnányi can claim some historical lineage with this work, since his grandfather, Ernö, conducted the premiere of the piece in 1938. Perhaps that accounted, in part, for the live-wire intensity of Thursday night’s performance.

The first movement fugue unfolded in a quicker tempo than is usually experienced in live performances, causing the densely chromatic lines to come off in a spirited fashion. 

Dohnányi led the ensuing Allegro at a driving pace, and the two string choirs, seated antiphonally, answered each other with bristly statements. The strings answered the conductor’s guide with rapt attention, the syncopated chords that pepper the movement taking on a rhythmic snap.

The third movement was mysterious and searching, with celesta adding chimes to the music’s glassy textures. Dohnányi opened the throttle for the finale. The pulsing rhythms of the descending theme bounded with a side-winding energy, and the rustic dance music central to the movement moved with precision thanks to the stellar support by the BSO percussionists.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto.

Martin Helmchen performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 with Christoph von Dohnanyi and the BSO. Photo: Liza Voll

Martin Helmchen performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with Christoph von Dohnanyi and the BSO. Photo: Liza Voll

Great as this work is, it is in danger of being overplayed, especially this season. The most recent BSO performance took place just this past July at Tanglewood, with Ken-David Masur leading an evocative reading by Garrick Ohlsson.

Yet Thursday night’s rendition demonstrated that thoughtful performances bring new enjoyment to this well-traveled warhorse.

The soloist was German pianist Martin Helmchen. The 33-year-old has been making rounds with a number of high-profile orchestras, engagements that have earned him an international reputation for virtuosity and an unimposing style.

His command of the instrument is extraordinary, and his colorfully nuanced approach to Beethoven’s muscular writing for the piano drew out the subtleties of the score.

Helmchen’s technique is clean and clear, his tone bell-like. The opening cadenza rang with a crystalline purity. 

Yet the pianist can change color and mood on a dime. His notes in the entrance in the second movement were blurred tastefully to give the music a singing arc. And when the theme of the finale is foreshadowed at the close of the movement, his phrases sounded as if distant echoes.

The finale was triumphant, with Helmchen’s take on the effervescent theme sounding full and light on its feet.

Throughout, Dohnányi led a stirring accompaniment, complete with dramatic weight and tender lyricism to match Helmchen’s stylish performance.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200.

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