In his second performance at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, François-Xavier Roth continued exploring the musical worlds of Schumann and Brahms but, this time, book-ended an undisputed masterpiece – the former’s Cello Concerto – with two lesser known works.

François-Xavier Roth and the Konzertstück quartet of horn players
© Hilary Scott

The Sunday afternoon program started with Robert Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns, composed with amazing speed at the beginning of 1849. Probably labeled as a “concert-piece” not for not being developed enough to be called a concerto but because its three movements are linked, it is a fully-fledged composition. It includes many exquisite musical phrases in which the four soloists are sustaining witty or lyrical dialogues not only among themselves but with the orchestra’s winds as well. As on other similar occasions, the performance was used as a showcase displaying the strength and depth of an orchestra’s horn section. The four BSO soloists – Richard Sebring, Michael Winter, Rachel Childers and Jason Snider – certainly fulfilled the task. Their intonations weren’t always spotless, but, overall, the players went beyond the score’s technical difficulties and brought forward the wonderful melodic lines and colorful harmonies that mark a too seldomly played opus.

On the autograph score, Schumann labeled his Cello Concerto in A minor as a Konzertstück as well. The composer was fully conscientious of the experimental nature of his musical scaffolding. The three movements are meant to be played without interruptions, featuring some incredible transitional passages. With its wide-ranging motivic echoes and an uncommon cadenza at the end of the Finale, featuring the cello accompanied by the orchestra, the work demonstrates that Schumann still had an amazing inventive prowess close to the end of his ill-fated and tragic career. The soloist was the genial and widely appreciated Yo-Yo Ma, one of the few classical artists able to bring throngs of people to the Tanglewood lawn, just as he did earlier this summer when interpreting Beethoven trios ( with Leonidas Kavakos and Emanuel Ax) or the full cycle of Bach’s cello suites. Regardless of interpreting for the millionth time the same score, part of a limited cello repertoire, his ability to just focus on his playing remains astonishing. In the Schumann concerto, he once again displayed his wonderful expressiveness, his unsurpassed talent to project over his accompaniment even sotto voce phrases.

Yo-Yo Ma and François-Xavier Roth with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

After the interval, Roth featured another work whose modest designation might be misleading. First conceived as a nonet, then expanded for chamber orchestra, and completed in its final full-orchestra form at the end of 1859, Brahms’ Serenade no. 1 in D major is a symphony in all but title. The opus is an example of Brahms’ approach to the past: something that mustn’t be encased in amber, regardless of how much it is treasured, but needs to be adapted to more modern sensibilities. From the very first bars of the Allegro molto, recalling Haydn’s Symphony no. 104, to the Scherzo reminiscent of Beethoven’s Second and the final Rondo evoking Schumann’s dotted rhythms, the score is a quest by the still young Brahms to find his own voice. There are obvious longueurs that Roth struggled to make more palatable. The Adagio is nevertheless already full of Brahmsian melancholy and the conductor made sure the listeners sensed it properly.

If there is someone never mentioned enough in the context of both Schumann and Brahms' oeuvres, that is Robert's wife, Clara. A benevolent spirit presiding over their lives and careers, she was an uncontested muse for both. Clara gave the first performance of the Adagio and Allegro Op.70, a close predecessor of the Konzertstück and a first chance for Robert to show his interest in the recently invented valve-horn. Brahms provided her a copy of the first movement of his Serenade as early as December 1858. Welcoming her husband's completion of the Cello Concerto – the dialogue between the soloist and the principal cellist in the Adagio has been interpreted as a conversation between Clara and the composer – she confessed in her diary: “The highly interesting interweaving of violoncello and orchestra are indeed wholly ravishing, and what euphony and deep feeling one finds in all the melodic passages!”