At Tanglewood, a Brahmsian TMC farewell

Guitarist Pepe Romero (left) and conductor Rafael Frübeck de Burgos at Tanglewood on Friday night. Guitarist Pepe Romero (left) and conductor Rafael Frübeck de Burgos at Tanglewood on Friday night. (Hilary Scott)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / August 16, 2011

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LENOX - Most summers at Tanglewood the music of Brahms is performed frequently enough to seem like a fixture of the landscape, and there it was once more this past weekend, the intimate thunder of the symphonies and choral music resounding in the Koussevitzky Music Shed. The music’s ubiquity can breed a sense of routine but not on Sunday, when the fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center rallied for a potent last hurrah. The Boston Symphony Orchestra typically holds court during the prime weekend slots, but Sunday’s all-Brahms affair was the final outing for the visiting students and early career players who have been working through mountains of repertoire at the margins of the campus all summer. Their rough-hewn but smoldering account of Brahms Symphony No. 2 was a parting gift to Tanglewood audiences, played with a sense of occasion.

The program’s first half placed the well-prepared Tanglewood Festival Chorus in the spotlight with the composer’s moving “Nänie’’ and “Schicksalslied’’ as well as in a richly shaded account of the “Alto Rhapsody’’ with the superb mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe in plaintive, stirring voice. Back on the podium Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos directed the massed musical forces. The program’s one quirk was the conductor’s own rather anodyne “Brahms Fanfare,’’ an arrangement of themes from the Fourth Symphony, with which he chose to open the program.

The weekend kicked off Friday night with Frühbeck de Burgos leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a short Spanish-theme program built to please, with selections from “Carmen’’ and Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.’’ Guitar soloist Pepe Romero gave an elegantly appointed account of the solo line, open to both high drama but also quieter ruminations, and Frühbeck de Burgos led splashy excerpts by Falla, Granados, and Giménez. One enjoyable novelty was Berio’s deft transcription of four versions of Boccherini’s “Ritirata Notturna di Madrid,’’ superimposed on top of each other.

On Saturday night Yo-Yo Ma drew a large crowd back to the Shed for his annual summer appearance with the BSO. Sadly, the number of pieces deemed suitable for such occasions is so small that the process of selection obeys a kind of dispiritingly reductive math. Lynn Harrell had already played the Dvorak Concerto a few weeks back, and Ma tackled the Elgar Concerto last summer and Shostakovich’s First the summer before. That left little beyond the Schumann Concerto, and out it came.

Fortunately, Ma is one of the very few industry superstars who seems congenitally allergic to coasting on his reputation or phoning it in. Every concert is still an authentic performance. So it was with the Schumann, as he argued for a conception of the work as a series of ferocious eruptions against the backdrop of a distant orchestra. Not even Christoph von Dohnanyi on the podium could make the pieces fully cohere, but Ma carried the outing by dint of sheer conviction. Saturday’s Schumann was bookended by a pair of first symphonies, by Prokofiev and Brahms, the latter receiving a particularly lean and cogent performance from the BSO under Dohnanyi’s baton.

Sunday night, as a kind of glittery pendant on the weekend, Ma returned to campus with pianist Emmanuel Ax and clarinetist Anthony McGill for a chamber music program in Ozawa Hall. McGill, the principal clarinetist of the Met Orchestra, gave a spacious account of Schubert’s “Arpeggione’’ Sonata, floating the work with a gleaming tone and liquid phrasing. Ax met him at every turn, and then offered the same crystalline support to Ma for an appealingly dark-hued account of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3. Ax has a graceful way of indicating accompanimental lines without pouncing on them note by note, and he also slipped seamlessly into the spotlight when called on. The three musicians joined forces after intermission for Brahms’s Clarinet Trio (Op. 114), a glowing autumnal work that breathes the air of the composer’s sublime Clarinet Quintet. The various parties on Sunday night never quite agreed on finer details of sound and character, but their clear affection for the music, their tonal generosity, and their native chamber music instincts took this performance a long way.

The starry chamber concert packed the hall with a capacity crowd, and three rows of extra seats were placed on the stage itself. All concert-goers braved the rain and an internal Tanglewood traffic jam, but the laurels for devotion go to the ponchoed masses that took in the program while huddled in the dark on the soggy lawn outside of Ozawa Hall.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


At: Tanglewood, Friday-Sunday