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BSO basks in all-Brahms evening

Reprinted from late editionsof yesterday's Globe.

Next to the installation of James Levine as music director, the return of Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos to the life of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2000 after an absence of 29 years has been one of the most heartening events in the institution's recent history. For the last five seasons, the Spanish conductor has worked with the orchestra in an impressive series of performances, which resumed Thursday night with an all-Brahms program that paired the familiar First Symphony with three works for chorus that are heard far less often.

Two of them, "Nanie" ("Lament") and "Gesang der Parzen" ("Song of the Fates"), the orchestra has never programmed in Symphony Hall, although both have been played and sung at Tanglewood. And the third, "Schicksalslied" ("Song of Destiny") hasn't been performed very often.

The music was composed over a dozen years or so in response to texts by three of the major German poets, Schiller, Goethe, and Holderlin. All three poems, saturated in the imagery of classical mythology, deal with how the gods are oblivious to human suffering. But the differences among these choral works are as striking as the similarity of their subject matter because Brahms responds not only to the colors, weights, and meanings of the individual words but to the overall color and atmosphere of the poems. And in the music he brings forward his own complex responses to the texts, which go beyond what the words have said or implied.

In a way, scheduling these works was an early birthday tribute to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, founded in the Berkshires 35 years ago by its director, John Oliver. Singing by heart, as always, and with full attention to verbal and musical values, the chorus moved over a wide dynamic and emotional range, from floating serenity to tragic outcry. And thanks to Fruhbeck, they were always integrated with the commentary offered by the orchestral textures.

It is a pity that Brahms wrote only four symphonies, because that means we hear them so often that our responses can be dulled: It is a rare performance that can make us hear a Brahms symphony with fresh ears. The First has been fortunate in its recent BSO interpreters, who include Levine and Bernard Haitink, but Fruhbeck belongs in their select company.

The conductor showed no sign of the injuries from an automobile accident last year that sidelined him for a while. He stands erect like a military man, but with the courtly bearing and manner of an aristocrat; he wields his baton like a rapier. He has schooled his musical instincts with a vast musical culture. He summoned a wonderful sonority from the orchestra, rich but not clotted, full but never forced. His interpretation was grand, spacious, and carefully planned -- all the difficult transitions and tempo relationships in the finale were magnificently judged -- and the sweep from darkness to blazing affirmation was compelling and convincing.

Fruhbeck did not bestow solo bows to the roaring response at the end. This was a collaborative achievement, and instead he repeatedly asked the entire ensemble to rise and join him, which meant the players had to stop applauding along with the audience.

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