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Haitink's Brahms symphony fulfills audience expectations

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Bernard Haitink.
Symphony Hall.
April 23, 8 p.m.

By Allen Jackson
Staff Reporter

Guest conductor Bernard Haitink directed the performance of Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Opus 56A, and his Symphony in E minor, No. 4, Opus 98; however, the concert's special spot was held by Dmitri Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, with Lynn Harrell as the guest artist. Still, it was Brahms's symphony that everyone was looking forward to.

Haitink led the BSO's recorded performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4, which was a roaring success despite the oppressive ticket prices and a few technical errors, including tempo difficulties in the passacaglia and overbearing horns in the allegro non troppo. The symphony overcame these minor difficulties, however, and the it ranks with Tchaikovsky's "Fate" symphonies.

That speaks volumes for Johannes Brahms, who was the most distinguished European symphonist of Late Romantic music. It is testimony to his musical acumen and angelic creativity that we rank him with such composers as Bach and Beethoven. And if any work is indicative of Brahms' magical ire, save perhaps his Lullaby, surely this symphony is it. Here Brahms invokes the most convoluted of euphonious themes and works them into an aural tapestry.

Superficially, this is yet another symphony. The first movement is fast and introductory -- allegro non troppo -- but it is rousing beyond belief. Don't let the simple-minded hear it or they'll be driven to bacchanalian revelries. And yet, this Boston audience survived the concert!

Certainly melody is critical, but structure is important as well, particularly in symphonies. Consider the deviations in classical symphonic structure Tchaikovsky made in his emotive wonder the Symphonie Pathetique. The symbiosis lurking behind the bars and notes allow each change to speak volumes.

The first movement yields to a waltzing infatuation. Indeed, it is poetic; the string choir sings with sweet romantic passion, and the movement is the most beautiful I have ever heard. There is no touching episodic beauty; it is a lubricious and melodic beauty from beginning to end.

The second movement is an andante moderato, and here Brahms' skill is put to the test. Where the first movement was divine dictation, this romantically noble movement falls in grandeur perhaps due to Brahms' lack of harmonic originality. Whatever the cause, it is elegiacally noble by itself, but anticlimactic when juxtaposed with the first movement.

The scherzo, Beethoven's invention, is permeated by a jollified sixteenth-note figure in the violins which skirts between the primary and secondary themes. It is a loud and somewhat annoying movement because of a hellish triangle, which is abused at points.

Brahms ends his masterpiece with an energetic and passionate allegro finale introduced by trombone chords. Brahms loved the older forms and so the use of the passacaglia or chaconne, thematic variations over a figured bass, in his symphony is really not surprising. Here the figured bass is a modified theme from Bach's Cantata No. 150 expanded to eight bars. In fact, the use of Baroque forms is a rather typical ploy popularized by Beethoven's fugal point in his Fifth Symphony. As the centerpiece of the symphony, the finale demands pensive attention because of its sprawling breadth; simply put, it is the voice of Brahms whispering melodic romance.

Almost all of Brahms' themes and every piece of his music holds some hidden subjective program, as if to parallel his hidden homosexuality. This is certainly true of the Fourth Symphony.

Although I didn't have the opportunity to prepare for the Variations on a Theme of Haydn, I was impressed by its reminiscence of older music. Essentially, the work is a set of eight variations and a finale combining Brahms' gentle and majestic side with phrases of august power. At the same time, Brahms employs rhythmic and structural variety to fondle with the idea of lines of contrary motion. The second variation explains this well by beginning every phrase with a loud "bump" and ending with delicate pianissimo. Furthermore, there is a battle between note groupings of twos and threes established by the violas and cellos. These patterns are not isolated in the first variation, and the finale invites their return.

The only honest surprise of the evening was Shostakovich's cello concerto. Though I had prepared to vegetate during this performance, it proved too exciting to ignore. There were some absurd complaints about the pace of the composition, but I was on the edge of my seat waiting in anticipation for each successive bar.

A guest cellist, Lynn Harrell, and principal horn, Charles Kavalovski, jaded their instruments. The concerto's inventiveness was adamant and refreshing, and it only get better when Harrell beating his cello black and blue with his bow until his hairs were hanging in thick strands and sweat was streaming down his brow.

This is an unusual cello concerto, different from Shostakovich's second in that it is more virtuosic and more popular. It is necessarily unique in its demands, hovering in the range of the treble clef most of the time. Perhaps more original than the contrasting moods of the first and second movements -- energy and rumination -- is the presence of a cadenza isolated as a movement itself. The finale brings the work full circle. Shostakovich is sassy here; he lets the cello sing an almost ethereal cantabile while violins and then flutes mark the salient phrases, returning to the excited drive of the first movement.