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BSO Recap: Seiji’s Mistake, Murray’s Storytelling

Brendel, Perahia Play at Symphony Hall

By Jonathan Richmond

All-Beethoven Program

Consecration of the House Overture

Symphony No. 8 Piano

Concerto No. 5, Emperor

Alfred Brendel, soloist

Seiji Ozawa, conductor

Symphony Hall, April 27

Works by Mozart, Schubert, and Chopin

Murray Perahia, A Solo Piano Recital

Symphony Hall, April 29, 2001

To prove I’m not wrong, I’m playing my wild and driven recording of Nicolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 as I write. It is alive with tension, filled with excitement, and a demonstration that a symphony regarded as one of Beethoven’s lesser creations is still full of wonder.

I’m not wrong: Seiji Ozawa let an opportunity slip by presenting a pleasant but under-rehearsed and altogether banal performance of Beethoven’s Eighth last Friday night. Ozawa’s shapeless and lethargic account suggested this was some sort of warm up for the major Beethoven treat that was to follow the intermission. But rejecting an invitation to find the insight that is everywhere awaiting discovery in a work of brilliance and energy is no way to treat the composer whose very name looks down from the arch above the performers in Symphony Hall.

Things changed markedly for the appearance of Alfred Brendel -- back after missing two concerts due to an arm injury -- for a performance of Beethoven’s fifth and final piano concerto in this series of three BSO all-Beethoven programs in which all five have been played. The performances of both soloist and orchestra were stunning: indeed, they were intertwined in a heavenly, if at heart organic, symbiosis.

Brendel played with a natural fluency that highlighted and empowered the musical message rather than the messenger, making the hammers striking metal strings almost incidental to the exchange of sublime ideas between Brendel, orchestra, and awestruck audience. The opening Allegro saw Brendel develop gripping suspense, details bursting out in ever-changing coloration, while majestic string playing added to tensions, and glowing winds danced sensuously with the soloist.

The slow movement was rapturous. String playing was sensitive, opening the movement with an understated cry of deep lament. Brendel seemed to find revelation in every phrase, while making the shaping of each note dissolve into the logic of a perfectly-conceived whole. He made the exultant Rondo: Allegro ma nontroppo, an essay in glory and joy. His ability to effortlessly articulate multifaceted ideas with an invisible virtuosity made for a mentally-involving as well as exciting finale, and Ozawa’s orchestra was equally caught up in the celebration.

Still more piano playing was on offer this past weekend with Murray Perahia giving a Sunday afternoon solo recital of Mozart, Schubert, and Chopin in Symphony Hall. Perahia can’t resist adding a touch of the romantic to his Mozart, and the Fantasiain C Minor, K. 475 was played with gentle caresses and dreamy innuendo. Perahia’s account of the Schubert Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960, was quite introverted, the soloist seemingly lost in the work’s quiet drama, while leaving the door open for the audience to join him in sonata movements made into a series of storytelling songs without words. The concert ended with Chopin, and Perahia provided a well-sprung account of the Polonaise in A, Opus 40, No. 1 and showed a colorful playfulness for five Etudes from Op. 25.

The three pianists recently heard in Boston, Alfred Brendel, Robert Levin (standing in for Brendel for the Beethoven second and fourth piano concerti), and Perahia have each displayed quite distinct identities: Brendel the poetic creator of inspired wholes which don’t seem to come from the sum of their parts; Levin the wild lyricist who evokes the manic brilliance of Beethoven with pathos as well as adrenaline; and Perahia, the dreamer, evoking myriad thoughts and emotions with his every touch. Liars all, who deceitfully place their individual imprints on well-loved music, they each draw us closer to a musical truth which can only be established by the imagination and drama of every new live performance.