I have no idea how many times Ax has played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, as he did on this occasion. But after half-a-century on the concert stage, I expect that even he has lost count. And, at the end of Sunday’s performance, I found myself hoping that he will continue to play Beethoven concertos for at least another half century.
Of course, it’s always exciting to hear young, up-and-coming artists, who play like they have something to prove. But there’s also something deeply satisfying about hearing a musician like Ax, who, in the year 2017, has nothing to prove, and proves it by bringing a depth of experience to every note he plays.
As for the BSO, under music director Andris Nelsons, they too demonstrated a thorough understanding of the Beethoven concerto up on their music stands. (One would hope for and expect this, from an orchestra that regularly plays under the name “Beethoven,” carved above the stage in Boston’s Symphony Hall.) Balance was superb, and Nelsons seemed in full agreement with his soloist’s tempi and dynamics. It was a match made in musical heaven.
However, it was with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique the BSO had a greater opportunity to show what they could do. Here, Nelsons seemed eager to put his own, personal, stamp on his performance, with his tempi, his dynamics and his balance. This much was clear in his conducting technique, which was decisive and authoritative. (Very much a stick-man, he has a few tricks of his own, including a frantic waving of the baton as though he were trying to shoo a fly.)
A lesser conductor, or a lesser orchestra, might have floundered in an attempt to refresh and re-imagine the Symphonie Fantastique. But Nelsons and the BSO and were up to the challenging task they set themselves – and the result was triumphant and revelatory, with fulsome brass, thrilling woodwinds, rich strings, and a percussion section that played like their lives depended on it. This Symphony Fantastique was powerful, colourful and expansive, on a Mahlerian scale.
Sunday’s concert was the second appearance by a major international orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall in the 2016/17 season. (The Berlin Philharmonic appeared in November.) This is generous, by historic standards: I can remember years when Toronto was visited by only one big-name foreign orchestra per season – or, in some years, none. I hope that the RTH management will feel sufficiently encouraged by the large audiences that both the BPO and BSO attracted to make bringing more top-level orchestras to Toronto a high priority.
© Colin Eatock 2017