A conductor’s impressive BSO debut and a pianist’s bizarre Brahms

January 21, 2022 at 12:13 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Igor Levit performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with Elim Chan conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Rare, indeed, is the encore that overshadows a Brahms piano concerto. Yet on Thursday night at Symphony Hall there was just such an experience.

Following a strangely subdued account of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Elim Chan, pianist Igor Levit rewarded a loud ovation with Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of J. S. Bach’s “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.”

In this chorale-prelude, the idiosyncracies of Levit’s Brahms–particularly its inward, devotional focus– illuminated, rather than clouded, the music’s expressive riches. Each phrase was right, every gesture apt. It was, in a word, four nearly perfect minutes of music-making.

This isn’t to say that the fifty minutes of Brahms that came before wanted for moments of grandeur, beauty, or playfulness. All of those qualities could be found, most consistently in the graceful, thoroughly gemütlich traversal of the concerto’s finale that Levit and Chan conjured up. They were there, too, in the introspective first-movement dialogues between solo horn and keyboard, as well as during the Andante’s dreamy, ruminative spells.

But for much of this Brahms Second Concerto, Levit seemed intent on undermining the traditional, leadership function of the solo part.

Accordingly, nearly all of the opening movement’s entrances were toned down. While the Scherzo’s keyboard textures were exceedingly clean, its diabolical element felt consistently restrained. And, in numerous spots over the Andante’s second half, the piano’s filagree simply disappeared into a haze of soft woodwind and string textures.

True, Levit’s antiheroic approach largely respected the score’s tempo and phrasing indications.  However, its inversion of soloistic and accompanimental roles undercut the music’s latent give-and-take between keyboard and orchestra. Only the concluding Allegretto grazioso, in which Levit and the BSO functioned, essentially, as equals, truly clicked. In much of the rest of the piece, the solo part felt bizarrely underpowered.

Even so, Chan, who was making her BSO debut, drew an accompaniment from the ensemble that was rhythmically taut, smartly balanced, and tonally warm. If the outer sections of the Scherzo wanted for vim, the trio’s syncopations were boisterous and the slow movement’s fragile textures beautifully done.

In her BSO debut Elim Chan conducted music of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Brian Raphael Nabors. Photo: Winslow Townson

Indeed, Chan was the night’s revelation. As a conductor, she’s the embodiment of the principle that less is more. Like Fritz Reiner or Bernard Haitink, she’s not overly demonstrative on the podium. But her beat is clear, gestures economical, and cues precise. Also, she has an exceptionally sensitive ear.

On Thursday, these characteristics resulted in a thrilling performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2.

Written in 1872 and revised eight years later, the Second is the most popular of that composer’s first three symphonies.

Sometimes subtitled “Little Russian” for its inclusion of Ukrainian and Russian folk music sources, parts of it (especially the finale’s variations) can come across bombastically. That they didn’t in Chan’s interpretation speaks volumes. In fact, from start to finish, her command of this music—its structure, pacing, character, and instrumentation—was a marvel of control and understanding.

The first movement’s somewhat rigid structure unfolded with a breathtaking sense of direction and excellent balances: the apex was mighty and bold but never threatened to devolve into an overpowering din.

Chan ably drew out the Andante’s latent charm and rustic colors, while the Scherzo unfolded in swirling, texturally lucid paragraphs.

So did the finale, its stout opening phrases ceding way to playing that channeled rhythmic brio and Slavic soul in equal measure. The coda, in particular, was exhilarating.

Between these warhorses came Brian Raphael Nabors’ Pulse.

Basically a study of rhythmic cells and patterns drawn from everyday life, it’s an orchestral tour-de-force that, at times, seems to marry the drive of John Adams’ The Chairman Dances with the sweep of John Williams’ Adventures on Earth.

As such, Pulse is an easily ingratiating piece. While not all of its twists and turns add up, the finest moments—like the series of driving episodes for drums and hi-hat and the affecting, lyrical coda—are touching.

Chan and the BSO ensured that all of these counted. For Nabors, as for this conductor, it was an auspicious night.

The program will be repeated at 1:30 p.m. Friday and at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

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