BSO, Nelsons, Bronfman: All Aglow

Iman Habibi and Andris Nelsons (Hilary Scott photo)

Throughout the summer, area concerts have featured the 251-year-old Beethoven, as well as works by composers who specially admired the master. In addition, the concerts have introduced the music of significant rising composers, especially women and people of color, to make god on a promise to bring gifted artists of the current generation. At the Koussevitzky Shed on Sunday, July 25th, Beethoven was represented by his third piano concerto, performed by Yefim Bronfman; his admirers by Robert Schumann, (both as a composer and aa a distinguished critic), with his D-minor symphony; and musical youth in the person of the Iranian-Canadian Iman Habibi, who penned a short Beethoven tribute, Jeder Baum spricht (“Every tree speaks”), for the birthday year.

Iman Habib took his title from Beethoven’s sketchbook, one that the master carried while walking in the natural beauty of the Vienna Woods or the city parks. While sketching the Pastoral Symphony, he studied the trees around him and felt something ineffable in them. In planning his piece, Habib moved this thoughtful pondering two centuries forward, thinking about Beethoven’s possible response to today’s environmental degradation. Composed for an orchestra with the same instrumentation as Beethoven’s Fifth, Jeder Baum spricht suggest the sonorities of Beethoven’s best-know work, but it does not at any point make obvious borrowings. Rather it suggests an action of pursuing goals and finding them blocked and resisted, requiring an approach from a different direction. It reaches climaxes with intense orchestral energy and drive, ending—as some of Beethoven’s most-loved works do with a sunny ray of hope that, however much it might have been inspired by Beethoven, makes its point in its own way, without specific aping or quoting.

In Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, in C Minor, Yefim Bronfman richly characterized the moods and ideas of the three quite different movements: the vigorous, almost military sound of the opening, with its firm scale passage followed by a dotted rhythm suggesting timpani (though Beethoven craftily withholds the timpani at first); the quite, almost prayerful second movement, with rich fioriture played rapidly and delicately throughout; and the sudden move to cheeky, rollicking themes in the finale. With each of these different kinds of music, Bronfman’s approach was fully alive and fitting to the various moods. The hushed, mysterious end of the first movement, following the cadenza (a passage that Beethoven learned from Mozart’s C-minor concerto at the same place) turned the assertive drum figure into a hushed mystery, with the timpani actually appearing at last to take over the dotted rhythm theme (apparently one of Beethoven’s first ideas for the piece). This allowed the surprisingly bright E-major opening of the slow movement, where Bronfman’s limpid songfulness highlighted the uniqueness of its expression. And, after having all but disappeared into that tranquil music, he returned as a kind of comic figure moving through the playful elements of the final rondo.

Andris Nelsons presiding on 7/25/21 (Hilary Scott photo)

Schumann attempted symphonies, essentially on the Beethoven model, after his years o composing truly original music for the piano. After his marriage to Clara Wieck, he began, partly at her urging, to move to larger forms including the orchestra. The Symphony No. 4 was actually the second he composed, though Schumann reworked it considerably almost a decade later, after he had completed his other three symphonies. In this reworking, he emphasized thematic interactions among all the different movements, extending an approach found (in different degrees) especially in Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies, which he admired greatly. Completed the early 1850s, Schumann’s Fourth was the last German symphony to enter the general repertory for almost a quarter century, until Brahms finally brought forth his first.

Beethoven certainly inspired Schumann’s thematic ideas, but (as has often been noted) his problematic treatment of the orchestra often left it to conductors to balance the sonorities and clarify the effect. Some conductors have gone so far as to reorchestrate by cutting lines that they deemed overly duplicative. (Schumann was a conductor of uncertainly abilities mostly working with players that he didn’t quite trust, so he often overloaded the parts to ensure that someone would come in). Of course with the Boston Symphony under Nelsons, such concerns are otiose. The conductor can and did adjust balances to clarify the colors, and bring out the various related themes, building a firm and satisfying traversal.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.