In Boston, Beethoven Pales Next to Rachmaninov

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Rachmaninov: Emanuel Ax (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden (guest conductor), Symphony Hall, Boston. 11.2.2012 (KH)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 19
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 in e minor, Op. 27


At this tender time, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra searches for a new music director, one expects a certain degree of safety in the season’s programming. All the same, the Beethoven Second Piano Concerto strikes me as soft-pedaling. It’s a nice piece – no argument – and our band played well, and it is a pleasure to hear an artist of the stature of Emanuel Ax at work, even in a creampuff, along with guest conductor Jaap van Zweden. But even in an apparently “director-less” time, this is an orchestra fit for mighty deeds, and I cannot help but speculate that the concerto would have provoked sharp comment from say, Charles Ives.

(It is a curious fact that even an organization like the BSO – and recall that Beethoven is the only composer whose name actually appears engraved above the proscenium at Symphony Hall – performed the concerto for the first time as recently as 1948. And that concert was down in New Haven; the first appearance of the concerto on a BSO subscription concert was in December of 1953.)

Beethoven wrote this concerto first, but published it second, and apparently after assiduous re-working. “The first movement…was stitched and patched over the years,” writes Jan Swafford in his notes. He also comments that Beethoven’s concertos “have beautiful slow movements that are more original than their surroundings,” a remark that sets a high benchmark, as my recent listening has included a great deal of Haydn, who also penned many a startlingly exquisite Adagio.

In sum: the Beethoven was all right, but something of a dud opener. Knowing how Maestro Ax can shake some of the late sonatas by their collar studs, I could not help feeling there was an opportunity missed here.

The Rachmaninov was another matter entirely. The quiet intensity of the opening Largo seized the stage, and the audience were eating out of the orchestra’s hand (and that of the guest conductor) for the full duration of the symphony (happily performed without the cuts some have made). Indeed, the audience started to applaud after the Adagio third movement, but van Zweden, poised like an Olympic diver, motioned quickly behind himself and plunged on to start the Allegro vivace conclusion.

The playing throughout was impassioned and colorful. Seemingly every player or section had opportunity to shine. To select but three: the string choir, including several solo sweet-timbred passages featuring Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova; the horns, sounding glorious; and Robert Sheena’s characteristically plaintive English horn.

The close of the symphony brought practically the entire audience to their feet for an ovation. The first soloist whom van Zweden invited to stand for recognition was principal clarinet Bill Hudgins – certainly richly deserved.

Karl Henning