LENOX — Here’s what you don’t see on the Arcadian Tanglewood brochures: Sudden storms are just a fact of life in the Berkshires. Sometimes Mother Nature’s giant timpani in the sky harmonizes with the music — no one who was around for this summer’s concert performance of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” will forget how crashing thunder welcomed the Valkyries on stage at the beginning of Act 3 — but in other instances, it’s just a disruption. (Lest we forget: the Koussevitzky Music Shed itself was built after a loud storm rained out a piece in 1937.) Still other pieces could go either way, depending on the interpreter. And if a thunderstorm is going to crash your concerto, Kirill Gerstein is far from the worst pianist you could have on stage.
The piece was an auspicious first salvo for conductor François-Xavier Roth, a regular Symphony Hall guest who made his Tanglewood debut this past weekend with two programs of Brahms and Robert Schumann. No matter the repertoire, be it Bach or Lutoslawski, Gerstein has a way of making whatever he’s playing seem like the most important music in the world. At the keyboard Saturday night, he was a force of nature; stage and storm seemed to be not in conflict, but harmony. The green smell of rain suffused the air.
Gerstein attacked the keys with bright force, which was mostly well-contained. (At his most passionate, he sometimes bludgeoned the lower end.) More importantly, he knew when he wasn’t the most important person on stage, seamlessly shifting from foreground to background in the richly textured Andante while BSO principal cellist Blaise Déjardin spun out an eloquent, mellifluous solo and the last rumbles of thunder sounded in the distance.
The storms had passed by the end of intermission, but Roth and the BSO served up plenty of Sturm und Drang in Schumann’s Symphony No. 2. Though it’s in the key of C major, it’s not a happy piece. Conducting the first two movements at a bracing pace, Roth brought out the darkness; in the second movement, which gradually sped up into a frenzy, the anxious staccato of the winds faced off with and ultimately absorbed the strings’ consoling statements. Even the emotional Adagio bristled with tension. With first and second violins seated on opposite sides of the conductor’s podium, their extensive musical dialogues were nicely exposed.
With the next afternoon came sunny skies, a Tanglewood lawn crowded with colorful blankets and umbrellas, and Schumann in a holiday mood: his romping “Concertstück” for four horns and orchestra is an almost guaranteed crowd-pleaser if the horn quartet has the goods. BSO horn players Richard Sebring, Michael Winter, Rachel Childers, and Jason Snider almost had it down pat, but not quite. Each took a stumble here and there and the slow movement sounded tenuous, but their arpeggios in vigorous harmony and triumphant finale were more memorable. A standing ovation came instantly.
Onto why the lawn was so crowded. Is it really a summer at Tanglewood if Yo-Yo Ma doesn’t perform a war-horse concerto? In Ma’s hands, Schumann’s Cello Concerto was ripe with Romantic fervor, and he turned in a quality performance. Like Gerstein the previous night, he locked in with the orchestra, looking behind him toward Déjardin (the weekend’s obvious MVP) during the second movement’s cello duet. In the upbeat third movement, he played the showman, and orchestra and soloist seemed to feed off each other’s energy. That spark vanished after intermission with Brahms’s Serenade No. 1, which had its lovely moments but overall felt bloated, and many players’ weariness was audible during the final movements. It’s been a long summer. (One week to go, everyone!)
In the anniversary-obsessed world of classical music, this Brahms/Schumann weekend felt like a missed opportunity to honor the bicentennial of Clara Wieck Schumann — composer, pianist, mother, wife of Robert, longtime close friend of Brahms, and still too often reduced to a footnote. She left no finished orchestral pieces besides her Piano Concerto No. 1. Her Piano Trio was performed by Tanglewood Music Center fellows earlier this summer, but it would have been wonderful to hear some of her music alongside that of the two men with whom she shared so much.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Tanglewood, Lenox. Aug. 17-18.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.