Two debuts and some blazing Brahms

03.20.09
Alisa Weilerstein
Boston Globe

Who doesn't love a mighty big-boned Romantic concerto from time to time? The problem is that too often these warhorses just aren't played with real conviction or a burning sense of purpose. And few things are more depressing than hearing a famous but road-weary soloist phone in a vapid performance of a piece that's supposed to explode from the stage. In those moments, the entire classical music star system feels broken, and the music sounds just as tired as the performer.

I'm happy to report that none of that applies this week at Symphony Hall, as two big emerging talents in the classical world - violinist Janine Jansen and cellist Alisa Weilerstein - are making their subscription debuts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Last night, with conductor Hans Graf on the podium, they lit a blazing fire beneath the Brahms Double Concerto. If you know anyone who might be susceptible to the visceral thrills of classical music but has not yet clicked in to this art form, take them to this concert - or at least the first half.

Weilerstein was in the zone from the outset, rendering the cello's major opening statement with a large full sound and an arresting tone that somehow seemed to face outward and inward at the same time. From her first entrance as well, Jansen showed an ear for eloquently inflecting the intervals and leaps in the violin line while at the same time almost ideally matching Weilerstein's temperament and rhapsodic style.

As the movement continued, the soloists also seemed intent on finding some of the classical elegance in passages of string writing that often get attacked with brute force. The second movement had a lyrical chamber music-like delicacy, and the finale felt fresh with Weilerstein's expansive phrasing again setting the tone. For her part, Jansen also had a way of turning up the gas at the end of an emphatic phrase such that the music landed with just that extra bit of force. Graf's accompaniment was sensitive if a bit on the cool side for such a warm-blooded reading.

After intermission came Bruckner's immense Seventh Symphony. It's no wonder that Bruckner's colossal works have become a tough sell in the age of instant messaging and Twitter. This epic piece lasts well over an hour, and asks us to rewire our internal clocks as we track the vast symphonic landscape that opens up slowly before the ears. Last night Graf's account seemed to marvel at that landscape's sheer tonal beauty, more than its emotional intensity or dramatic sweep. Some passages also had a heavy tread when lightness was required. Still, the brass were potent and the strings sounded rich and resonant, with the final pizzicato of the second movement ringing as if produced by some vast cosmic cello.