Armchair psychologists maintain that growing a beard is an effort to hide something. Evolutionary biologists demur. Rather than an evasion, a beard is an overt expression of confidence. Both agree that identity is definitely tied to body image. In the case of Johannes Brahms and the facial foliage he cultivated, he either had an appreciable amount he preferred to keep private or was inordinately confident. The two pieces closing out the Boston Symphony’s “mini-fest” suggest both possibilities hold true. Bearded Brahms was prolific and adventurous as he developed and deepened his personal voice. The emotions, though, are veiled and indirect unlike those of the clean-shaven concerto and symphonies on last week’s program.

Andris Nelsons, Hélène Grimaud and the Boston Symphony © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons, Hélène Grimaud and the Boston Symphony
© Marco Borggreve

Hélène Grimaud picked up on this distinction, writing on her Facebook page, “To perform his first Concerto is to be directly absorbed into the drama of the young Brahms’ life; the second Concerto offers a journey of intimate introspection.” While her performance of  First Concerto was feisty and impetuous, the Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major balanced impulse and control. She shaped the drama of the first movement diving into the keyboard and using the power in her shoulders and forearms to fashion an emotional arc in blocks of sound, concluding with a series of powerful trills. The following Allegro appassionato put the accent on the appassionato, articulated forcefully and percussively. Passion yielded to the lullaby-like repose of the Andante, primarily an intimate conversation filled with yearning and resignation between piano and cello ending with another, much more muted flurry of trills. The incandescent final movement sparkled like a glass of spumante.

The autumnal hues Nelsons drew from the orchestra carried over into the Symphony no. 3 in F major. Though Brahms encoded his motto, Frei aber froh (unencumbered but happy) in the three-note motif F-A-F which weaves and morphs throughout the symphony, a wash of melancholy tinges the happiness. The full, warm tone of the strings playing continuous vibrato combined with Nelsons’ use of rubato for dramatic emphasis voiced this subtext, but without darkening the overall light and poetry of the symphony. Overlapping textures buoyed on expansive tempi never coagulated permitting the interplay of inner voices to be heard. As in all the other symphonies, Nelsons abetted that clarity by separating the horns from the rest of the brass seating them to his left in the back corner. The final movement slowly dwindled to a whispered reprise of the F-A-F motif, like the yawn of someone contented with their lot gradually falling asleep.

Timo Andres’ commission Everything Happens So Much takes its title from social media: a tweet from a now defunct Twitter account known for its daily dose of opaque, seemingly profound aphorisms. On its surface, the tweet appears vague and banal, but Andres found its vagueness oddly thought provoking and suggestive of the possibility of a multitude of meanings. Unlike Eric Nathan last week, his response to Brahms is stylistic not thematic. He takes his inspiration from Brahms’ layering of melody, pulse and color. The intersection and conflict of the various layers Andres builds up contrapuntally drives his piece. Two piccolos repeat a descending series of notes in a clockwork rhythm. Each instrument in the wind section takes up the motif in succession. Percussion joins in to punctuate the counterpoint as the fugue builds in the other sections and the texture thickens. The harp introduces a new motif, but the opening phrase, now taken up by the brass, continues to butt in. Chaos and total disintegration loom as layers proliferate and collide. The layers gradually thin out like mists dispersed by the sun. In a closing reminiscent of the Third Symphony’s fadeout, the music ebbs quietly, but the conclusion is abrupt, occurring on an upbeat mid-phrase ending the piece with a question mark. That so much of this complex score could be heard clearly and appreciated was testimony to the care with which Nelsons and the orchestra prepared and performed it. It was a clean-shaven performance befitting its clean-shaven composer.

As for Andris Nelsons’ new beard and what it may mean for this phase of his career, that remains to be seen.