Haitink and Perahia dispatch a dispassionate evening with BSO

February 7, 2014 at 3:25 pm

By David Wright

Murray Perahia performed the Schumann Piano Concerto Thursday night with Bernard Haitink and the BSO. Photo: Stu Rosner

Having just shoveled out of yet another snowstorm, Boston Symphony Orchestra ticketholders also found cool temperatures, emotionally speaking, in Symphony Hall Thursday night.  Bernard Haitink led the orchestra, with piano soloist Murray Perahia, in performances of Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony that were, in the main, all business and little play.

Before getting to the longer works, the orchestra’s wind, brass, and percussion players performed Steven Stucky’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary (after Purcell), a reworking of the English composer’s 1695 piece in the modestly modernizing spirit (if not the style) of Stravinsky’s adaptations of Pergolesi for the ballet Pulcinella.

The question that occurred most often when listening to the Stucky piece was “Why?”  To begin with, neither Robert Kirzinger’s program note nor an additional note by the composer shed any light on what prompted the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen to suggest this particular project to Stucky in 1991.

And then one wondered what hidden potential of Purcell’s original was being realized by putting a persistent bass pedal note under the Baroque composer’s harmonies, or by rescoring it to sound by turns acidic (with muted brass) and beefed-up, or by producing smearing effects with conflicting tempos.

None of these ideas was pursued very far, and the result was a brief item that sounded not quite like the original, and not quite like a modern piece.  References in the notes to “distancing” and “through the lens of three hundred intervening years” still didn’t answer that nagging question.

For years, Schumann’s wife Clara, a piano virtuosa of the first order, begged him to compose a brilliant concerto for her.  When Schumann finally complied, he did it his way, producing a piece that was athletic, yes, but also tender, dreamy, flirtatious, volatile, and most of all unpredictable.  Even during the big windup of the concerto’s finale, Schumann suddenly halted the proceedings to insert a few bars of a dizzy little waltz, like something out of his poetic piano masterpiece Carnaval.

When pianist Perahia came to that place in Thursday night’s concert, he put his head down and charged ahead, as if inconvenienced by the interruption.  It had been like that throughout this highly polished but charmless performance.  As the pianist chugged through the familiar score, missed opportunities for wit and expressiveness flew by like station platforms glimpsed from the express train.

Pianistically, Perahia was in great shape.  Chords were beautifully voiced, the rapid passages smooth, shapely, and either velvety or brightly articulated as the music required.  The mystery is why he felt like clickety-clacking through such treasured moments as the first-movement cadenza, meditative and impassioned by turns, and the teasing little Andantino grazioso that separated the two big movements.

Was this some sort of “new objectivity” about Romantic music?  If so, all it proved was that Schumann’s music doesn’t play itself.

By contrast, the orchestra and its wind soloists sounded downright swoony when introducing the first movement’s main theme.  But they soon got with the pianist’s program and managed to keep up.

As Brahms’s Fourth got underway, it appeared that the new objectivity was still in charge.  There was little sense of urgency in the opening pages of this troubled and ultimately tragic work, or mystery in its ominous pauses.  Although crisp and vigorous on the podium, Haitink appeared not to ask for real fury in the first movement’s catastrophic conclusion, and didn’t get it.

Even though that movement could have finished hotter, the ensuing Andante moderato was still an effective case of “distancing”—a cool, solemn processional in antique modal harmonies.  Woodwinds, and subsequently horns, were beautifully balanced and tuned as they stated the first theme.  The contrasting fervor of the cello theme, however, was masked by countermelodies; later the violins, whose bright tone tended to dominate this performance, had better results with it on their lush G strings.

The scherzo of Brahms’s Fourth, marked Allegro giocoso, serves the same function as that of Tchaikovsky‘s Sixth: an outburst of animal high spirits before the work’s tragic conclusion.  Haitink’s rather driven performance didn’t have much “giocoso” (humorous, jolly) about it.  And even though the use of a triangle for extra sparkle was a somewhat notorious departure for Brahms, there was no need to play it like a fire bell, as sometimes happened on Thursday.

Perhaps Haitink’s get-on-with-it approach to the finale was aimed at not tiring the listener with its thirty-something variations.  But Brahms had already taken care of that with ingenious dovetailing and shifting harmonies that masked the variation form, conveying a feeling of “symphonic movement” rather than “the same thing thirty times.”  There was plenty of room to explore the colors and character of each episode without boring anyone; not doing so was making the music seem longer, not shorter.

Eventually, though, some striking moments emerged, especially the quiet but rich-toned Wagnerian chorale in the trombones.  Rudely roused from that meditation, Haitink’s performance seemed to find its urgent edge at last, and drove on to the end with, if not tragic depth, at least fierce energy.

The perogram will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.  bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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