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What Might Have Been

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/06/2000 -  
Hector Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture
Henri Dutilleux: Symphony # 2
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto # 2

Nelson Freire (piano)
Boston Symphony
Seiji Ozawa (conductor)

Quite frankly, I was attracted to this evening’s BSO concert because one of the greatest living pianists (and certainly the most conversant with the Romantic idiom), Krystian Zimerman, was scheduled to perform that most luscious all of concerti, the Rach II. In his place appeared a self-effacing artist of considerable skill, Nelson Freire, an unassuming man who is the polar opposite of his two piano partner Martha Argerich. Freire never relies on flamboyance or artifice, letting his small-handed sound whisper for itself. Unfortunately, this approach is positively bizarre for Rachmaninoff, who established his own pianistic tradition of spectacular effects, so rarified in its possibilities that only his friend Vladimir Horowitz could ever keep up with this giant (physically as well as artistically) of a man. The Second Concerto contains the most thrilling tension since Beethoven but needs not only an athlete but also an egomaniac to project this intensity up to the third balcony. The best practitioners of this art are the Russians, Richter, Gilels, even Kissin, while it would be ludicrous for a Horszowski or a Serkin to even try. To make the Boston experience even more surrealistic, Maestro Ozawa had his strings in fine silver voice, producing very lush passages echoed through a glass darkly in Mr. Freire’s reprises. I haven’t had much luck with this piece lately, having suffered through the molasses of Ivo Pogorelich in Philadelphia earlier this season, and Mr. Freire was equally frustrating. The good news, however, is that the BSO can still play and, as they enter a very exciting new season commemorating the 100th anniversary of their forever fabulous Symphony Hall, this is vital as they fumble along trying to deal with the reality that Simon Rattle is not coming to rescue them.

The Berlioz was triumphant, Ozawa one of the very few extant who understands this idiomatic master. It is truly a shame that so few of us know the opera Benvenuto Cellini, as it is not only filled with spectacularly beautiful music of passion but is also very, very funny and a pleasant romp in a good staging. At least the poignantly lovely "Teresa" love duet melody is preserved in this concert piece, an exerpted "underture" in the midst of the opera. Here the orchestra strutted like a peacock and also captured some of the musical jokes (including the portrayal of Balducci as a donkey) that are hidden in the score (compare any Wagner entr’acte). English horn soloist Robert Sheena was brilliant and tragic in the love theme, as memorable in its emotional scope as the more familiar L’amour l’ardente flamme. Berlioz is an acquired taste for most conductors and I think that he is not very popular beyond the fantastique because so few can catch the proper combination of delicate and powerful musical language. I heard a Requiem at Tanglewood some years ago which convinced me of Seiji’s powers and I remain steadfast in my praise of him (I’m a little defensive because he has so many detractors now). The Dutilleux seemed little more than film music to me.

The Boston Symphony is in transition and with the proper leadership can reestablish itself as the great ensemble that it once was. Their community loves them; hopefully not so much that they become complacent in their choice of music director. Now is the time for careful thought and considered reflection. I wish them well.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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