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The Steersman's Dream

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/15/2001 -  
Igor Stravinsky: Suite from Pulcinella
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concerto # 4
Johannes Brahms: Symphony # 2

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Boston Symphony
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

For my money, the best recordings of the symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner as a body are those led by Bernard Haitink during his 27 year tenure with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the most powerful cycle of those of Shostakovich is that of the same modest leader during his years in London. As only the fourth conductor in Amsterdam in the span of 100 years, Haitink preserved the Mengelberg tradition as zealously as any high priest, even replicating the legendary Mahler Festival of 1922, the first ever presentation of all ten of the composer’s symphonies. Wherever this unassuming director goes, excellence quickly follows. There is no doubt that, if he so desired, he could elevate himself immediately from principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony to its new music director. However, his own sense of pacing prohibits a move of this sort at present and so he is now serving in perhaps an even more vital role, that of guardian of the orchestra’s musical values during the difficult transition out of the Seiji Ozawa era.

Last evening, Maestro led a revitalized BSO in a fine example of music making. He emphasized the rough and tumble qualities in the Stravinsky, featuring timbres more in keeping with the medieval consort than the modern orchestra without sacrificing the beautiful nature of the original Pergolesi melodies. The chamber ensemble was intelligently positioned, one double bass right up front to play the solos, the others at the back to provide the ground. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe was especially lyrical in his several concertante passages. This performance reaffirmed the sonic health of the orchestra, sometimes called into question in recent years by other critics, although, to this ear, their overall musicianship has been steady throughout.

Yehudi Menuhin was only seven years old when his teacher, the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, proposed that he make his debut as a soloist in the Beethoven concerto. The conductor balked at the idea, stating that the Beethoven was beyond the scope of such a young performer, perhaps a Mozart would be more suitable. These five early concerti are rather inconsequential pieces (appearing, as they do, in the first third of the Koechel catalog) and for any one of them to be successful, the soloist must imbue the music with a certain panache or, at least, an interesting tonal palette. Frank Peter Zimmermann had neither at the ready and the result was an extremely technically competent but equally dull performance. The small orchestra accompanied with just the right light touch, but the affair was really just an opportunity for the elderly society crowd to catch forty winks before the main attraction.

And when it came, we were not at all disappointed. Haitink conducted a profound and energetic reading of the Brahms, filled with beautiful nuance. The horn solos were sublime in the first movement, the little timpani stroke punctuated by the pizzicato of the basses charmingly visceral (the hidden guilty pleasures of this earthy composer), the slight pause before the welling of the strings in the second movement simply exquisite. Haitink surely brings out the best in this ensemble and they very enthusiastically followed him to a wonderfully exciting conclusion (although I would have preferred more horn presence at the very end). This was a spectacular performance as confirmed by the universal opinion in the hall, the applause long and warm by New York standards.

Bernard Haitink can write his own ticket with the Boston Symphony, but, like its former music director Erich Leinsdorf, has decided to enjoy his remaining years without the stone of Sisyphus to roll uphill. Like Leinsdorf, he has established himself at the top of the list of sought after guest conductors, able to work when and where he wants. This is a fine reward for a great career on the concert stage, and both leader and band seem extremely appreciative of their symbiotic relationship. There is no real rush to appoint a new music director in Boston as long as the Dutchman is at the helm.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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