François-Xavier Roth Brings Intimacy and Beauty to Schumann and Brahms at Tanglewood

United StatesUnited States Tanglewood [7] – Brahms, Schumann: Kirill Gerstein (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, 17.8.2019. (RP)

François-Xavier Roth (conductor) and Kirill Gerstein (piano) © Hilary Scott

Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat Op.83

Schumann – Symphony No.2 in C major Op.61

As if on cue, a distant roll of thunder faded just as François-Xavier Roth gave the downbeat to begin Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.2. The call of the horn instantly filled Tanglewood’s Music Shed for the first of two concerts conducted by Roth with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and devoted to the music of Schumann and Brahms. Those burnished tones signaled the beginning of an exploration of music that highlighted the composers’ personal debts to the past and each other, as well their bold, innovative streaks. Moreover, at both concerts the music was in sync with the weather – for this one a stormy evening that gave way by the concert’s end to glimpses of a beautiful moon shrouded in clouds.

Roth, who was making his Tanglewood debut, wears many musical hats, one of which is that of the conductor of Cologne’s Gürzenich Orchestra. He has explored Schumann’s music there, especially works in which the composer experimented with form and color. This familiarity with Schumann’s musical language was readily apparent, as were Roth’s frequent forays into period performance and style. In both concerts, he crafted performances with the magnificent BSO that had the intimacy of chamber music, especially in the conversational musical flow that he drew from soloists and orchestra alike.

This was a musical environment extremely congenial to the talents of Kirill Gerstein, who has appeared often with the BSO at both Symphony Hall and Tanglewood. In a world where sequins and flash at times almost overwhelm the music, Gerstein, with his formidable technique and solid musicianship, is the opposite. He is a pianist of utmost refinement, whose delicate, shimmering pianissimos (especially those sustained trills in the upper range of the instrument with which Brahms peppered the score) were the epitome of precision and purity. Intensity and power come naturally to him, making Mother Nature’s enhancements hardly necessary but certainly adding a visceral thrill.

It’s an open question as to whether the audience applauded at the end of the first two movements because they were thrilled by the performance or were freed of inhibition after reading the late Michael Steinberg’s extensive program note. In the latter, Steinberg bemoaned the ‘priggish and anti-musical’ present-day custom of banning applause between movements. He noted that musically Brahms invited ovations, and the first audiences to hear the concerto readily obliged him. Gerstein warmly acknowledged the clapping from the piano.

Before beginning the third movement, Roth looked at the heavens, making an entreaty for calm, and for the most part the weather cooperated. The solo cello played the lovely melody that opens the movement (Brahms later used it in the heartbreaking song ‘Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer’) to relative quiet. The interplay between cello and piano was crowned with the stunning simplicity of the solo flute. And, as one would expect, the finale was full of gypsy fire, including some dazzling woodwind playing, which brought the audience to its feet.

Schumann wrote that his Symphony No.2, especially the first three movements, displayed the effects of the bout of depression that he endured in 1844. Composed in December 1845, it was the first large-scale piece that he completed after his breakdown. He was in better health and spirits when he composed the final movement, and the music takes on an affirmative, indeed triumphant, tone. The fourth movement’s emotional impact is considerable: in it Schumann quoted ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder’ from Beethoven’s song cycle ‘An die ferne Geliebte’. This music has long been thought of as a balm that Schumann offered to his wife Clara for the pain and heartache that his illness had caused.

There was little melancholy, however, to be heard in Roth’s reading of the score. What I remember most is the buoyancy. The trumpet fanfares that open the first movement gave way to music that was dramatic but not dark. Rustic and rambunctious best describe the lively Scherzo that followed. The throbbing sounds of the strings as they introduced the songlike theme of the Adagio was followed by the emotion-laden playing of the clarinet. Each entry of the brief fugue at the heart of the movement was precisely etched.

The finale began energetically, only to be interrupted by the strains of Beethoven’s melody played by the oboe. Neither Schumann, nor most assuredly Roth, had any intention of letting the subdued mood linger long. The BSO’s brilliant trumpets again sounded the fanfares, and the symphony came to a jubilant conclusion.

Rick Perdian

For more information on the 2019 Tanglewood season, click here.

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