Pianist provides grace and power in Philharmonic’s Brahms program

November 19, 2011 at 10:31 am

By Susie Y. Kim

Martina Filjak performed Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Philharmonic Thursday night at the Sanders Theatre.

There are not many conductors who come out to the lobby during intermission to schmooze with patrons.

Benjamin Zander’s ebullient, gregarious podium personality helped carry the Boston Philharmonic’s Brahms program Thursday night making for an energetic and thrilling concert, despite some passing technical flaws in the playing.

The Philharmonic concert at the Sanders Theatre featured two works by Brahms, as well as an extensive commentary by Zander before each piece. The charming conductor vividly painted Brahms’ life situation—including his tortured relationship with Clara Schumann at the time—when he composed the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, his first major orchestral work, which was originally conceived as a sonata for two pianos.

The 33-year-old Croatian pianist Martina Filjak was the soloist for the occasion, and brought a youthful verve and poised stage presence that was a perfect match for Brahms’ stormy drama. After the lengthy orchestral introduction, marred somewhat by ragged brass playing, Filjak’s entrance was marked by a delicate feminine grace, but as the theme progressed, her tempo escalated as did her digital power. The strength and weight of her chords was more than a match for the large orchestra in full cry.

The woodwinds provided sensitive accompaniment to Filjak in the Adagio. Stevi Rehncy, the principal bassoonist, introduced the theme with a smooth legato and set the tone for the harmonious oboe, bassoon, and piano trio. Filjak’s technical prowess was most noteworthy in the clarity of her trills in the descending scalar melody of the Rondo, which was inspired in part by Beethoven’s third piano concerto.

Benjamin Zander

Zander walked the audience through the main thematic elements of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, and even motivated the audience and orchestra to sing the final movement’s romantic trombone melody in A-sharp before he began the performance. Purists might cringe but Zander’s sense of humor gave a casual, approachable air to the evening, and the audience indeed seemed more attuned to the music as a result.

Zander and the Boston Philharmonic gave a laudable performance of the symphony. They captured the drama and passion of the work well, and Zander’s sweeping direction spurred them on as the piece progressed. However, this fiery style came at the cost of precision with the unison string melody in the second movement messy rather than majestic, and the brass section again suffering due to a lack of polish and cohesion.

Ultimately, the ensemble came out on top with its bold, animated account of the final movement’s passacaglia. Zander’s timing of the accelerando in the final bars took advantage of all the energy built up through the piece, resulting in a triumphant final chord.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Jordan Hall and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Sanders Theatre. bostonphil.org; 617-236-0999

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