Ohlsson and German Romanticism

07.07.14
Asher Fisch
The Boston Musical Intelligencer

By Cashman Kerr Prince

Garrick Ohlsson and the BSO performed Brahms, Liszt, and Wagner at Tanglewood on a pleasantly warm and breezy Sunday Afternoon. Asher Fisch wielding the baton, marshaled all to a memorable performance and delighted the crowd in the shed and on the lawn.

The concert opened with Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 (1881) with Ohlsson as soloist. This beloved warhorse remains a crowd-pleaser, especially when it is performed well—and it certainly was. Following Ohlsson, Fish connected the orchestra and soloist into a unified marriage. The opening Allegro non troppo displayed turmoil and bravado. The Allegro appassionato, fiercely impassioned from the opening piano notes, then turned bittersweet and lost the rough edges; the stately fugato became a pompous chorale before the piano reset into a gentler vein. The Andante contains the famous cello solo, here delivered by Jules Eskin with a richness, judiciously romantic portamenti, and a good width of vibrato (neither too wide nor too narrow but just right); Ohlsson entered and continued in a similar vein. Eskin’s solo at the end of this movement was even sadder than earlier, the recapitulation more wistful. The finale is marked Allegretto grazioso but here it began more forcefully than that; it acquired its grace in going gracefully. The whole performance was a Brahmsian feat, as 47 minutes passed by with enjoyable quickness.

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The BSO returned from intermission with Franz Liszt, Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem after Lamartine

(1854). The subtitle belies the tortured compositional history of this work and implies a connection with the French poet Alphonse Lamartine which came late in the work’s gestation. With a tightly knit construction, memorable melodies, and the capacity to bear the weight of great espressivity when performed well (as here), this is a popular work with good reason. The fact that it has been much excerpted in soundtracks does not hurt, either. It may not be performed quite so much as previously, perhaps simply because of the cyclical nature of tastes; or it may need to lie fallow until the accreted significations of various radio dramas have faded from memory. The vigor and variety from the BSO made a very good case for more frequent airings. The execution, like the overall structure of the tone poem, was tight and concise, expressive and filled with sudden changes of character.

 

The program concluded with excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868) played continuously as a suite; we heard the Prelude to Act III, “Dance of the Apprentices,” and Prelude to Act I. This is grandiose music and thus makes a good pairing with the Brahms opener. The dance in the middle has some fun to it (not a sentiment one popularly associates with Wagner), while all of the suite is filled with delightful melodies (it really was his gift) surrounded and enhanced by flurries of notes. The bombastic ending, while meant to herald the opening of the opera, makes a fit conclusion to a concert as well. Altogether, a fine workout for orchestra in which the music managed to transcend its own density.