Haitink, Znaider serve favorites straight up in BSO season closer

May 3, 2013 at 12:42 pm

By David Wright

Nikolai Znaider performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Bernard Haitink and the BSO Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

Slow and steady won the race Thursday night at Symphony Hall as the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Bernard Haitink slipped into summer with polished, poised readings of favorite works by Brahms and Schubert.

It was crisp rhythms and elegant tone chemistry more than daring interpretation that enlivened the last program of the orchestra’s 2012-13 subscription season.

Violinist Nikolaj Znaider contributed a bold yet controlled performance as soloist in Brahms’s Violin Concerto.  A tall, powerfully-built man who makes his instrument look small but sound big, Znaider stood almost eye-to-eye with the compact Haitink standing on the podium.

They may not have seen entirely eye-to-eye on the first movement’s tempo, however.  Haitink began the work with a long orchestral exposition in a rather plodding 3-to-a-bar, but when Znaider’s turn finally came he drove the music ahead more smartly.

The violinist’s hall-filling tone was never harsh or forced, not even in this movement’s slashing triple-stop chords.  He skillfully modified and tapered his sound in softer passages, although he didn’t venture far into the tenderness and vulnerability that so crucially soften Brahms’s rough edges.

The second movement began with a rare instance of BSO winds out of balance, with loud horns and bassoons making oboist John Ferrillo push too hard on his opening solo.  After that, all was balance and serenity in a straightforward rendering of the Adagio, with Znaider using well-timed diminuendo and pauses to expressive effect and keeping his bow steady even in the highest, softest passages.

The finale again lumbered a bit at the start, but soon was stepping out vigorously in dotted-rhythm scales.  Znaider’s free and unforced style of playing let plenty of fresh air into the music, and his phrasing stayed shapely right through the up-tempo finish.

Haitink’s straight-ahead approach to Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony, trusted Schubert’s score itself to enthrall the listener with its “heavenly length,” and for the most part it did just that, thanks to closely observed details like the little kick that brings the opening theme’s dotted rhythm to life.

In fact, lively dotted rhythms abounded in this symphony.  There is one right timing to their long-short pattern and any number of lax ones, and Haitink’s attention to getting them right kept this music on its toes throughout.

Besides such details, Haitink maintained an unobtrusive but steady pulse in both the Andante introduction and the main Allegro non troppo, generating an irresistible momentum that, like the right pair of running shoes, can make the length feel a lot more heavenly.

The conductor put a little extra moto in the Andante con moto, making this truly a symphony without a slow movement.  The brisk march tempo still allowed for a smooth string phrase here, a pouncing forte there, and elegantly intertwining woodwinds everywhere.

Low strings cast a Brahmsian glow over the second theme, and when the march returned it was decorated with soft trumpet calls and string embellishments that gleamed through the lucid orchestral sound.

In the scherzo, Haitink took the marking Allegro vivace literally: not especially fast, but very light and vivacious, so that the offbeat accents popped out.  In the long trio, however, the conductor’s steady-as-she-goes approach finally made one begin to wish for a little more interpretive tweaking to sustain interest.

There were similar moments as the finale chugged across the plains to its cheerful conclusion, but also many details to admire, such as the sparks thrown off by the rhythmic clash between fast dotted figures in the winds and fast triplets in the strings, and the splendid developmental buildup of the second theme, with its distinctive four repeated notes—surely the second-most famous four notes in symphonic history.

During the bows, a BSO end-of-season tradition was renewed as two retiring orchestra members with 78 years of service between them were brought to the podium to receive accolades from audience and orchestra.  Ronald Knudsen had been a member of the violin section since 1965.  Marshall Burlingame had been the BSO’s principal librarian—the organizational wizard who manages, conserves, and prepares for performance the orchestra’s vast collection of scores and parts—since 1985.

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


Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment