Andris Nelsons Conducts in Boston: BSO Fall Concerts Plus András Schiff Recital

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Symphony Hall, Boston:
Thursday, October 17, 8pm
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons – conductor
Wagner – Siegfried Idyll
Mozart – Piano Concerto no. 25 in C, K.503
Paul Lewis – piano
Brahms – Symphony no. 3 in F, opus 90

Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Tuesday, October 1, 8pm
Christoph Von Dohnányi – conductor
Mahler – Symphony No. 2 in C Minor
Camilla Tilling – soprano
Sarah Connolly – mezzo-soprano
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver – conductor
Marcelo Lehninger and Aram Demirjian – offstage conductors

Saturday, October 12, 8pm
Thomas Adès – conductor
Mendelssohn – Overture, “The Hebrides” (“Fingal’s Cave”), Opus 26
Ives – Orchestral Set No. 2
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor
Thomas Adès – “Polaris,” Voyage For Orchestra, Opus 29 (2010)
Franck – Symphony in D Minor

Thursday, October 31, 8pm
Charles Dutoit – conductor
Ravel – Le Tombeau De Couperin
Penderecki – Concerto Grosso No. 1 For Three Cellos and Orchestra (2001)
Gautier Capuçon, Daniel Müller-Schott and Arto Noras – cello
Elgar – Variations On An Original Theme, Opus 36, Enigma

Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory: November 1
Bach – Goldberg Variations
Beethoven – Diabelli Variations
András Schiff – piano

Andris Nelsons has now made his first appearance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra since being appointed its new Music Director. He will return for one concert in the spring and then assume full duties next fall. On October 17th, he was welcomed very warmly with a standing ovation, and at the end of the evening received another, well deserved one for a very effective performance of Brahms’s Third Symphony. This piece is hard to carry off — ostensibly in F Major but often veering into the minor, shifting in its moods, now turbulent — even violent — now tender and melancholy, sometimes coming forth with mysterious gestures like the “forest murmurs” toward the end. Nelsons made it all seem organic and inevitable. The performance was propulsive and tense, but never rushed. The furious parts were exciting, and the gentler material very beautifully played by the orchestra, especially Boston’s great woodwind and brass principals.

The first part of the concert was good but less successful. First came Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, and after a few bars it was clear that the orchestra was not just playing notes. There was purposefulness to what we were hearing, a beautiful and very “together” string sound, everything carefully shaped and voiced by Nelsons. But this gentle piece stayed a little too sleepy and by the end became a bit dull. There is tension and surprise to Wagner’s melting harmonies — very arresting, for example, in James Levine’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic — that did not come out here. Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major, K. 503, provided a nice contrast to the Wagner. Often called the most “symphonic” of Mozart’s concertos, it is grand, stately, with timpani and trumpets, the piano less an individual voice, or personality, than elsewhere, more just another brilliant instrument taking its part in the overall structure. Nelsons gave a clear sense of this structure. The piece had bones, or rather, fine classical columns and elegant pediments, with the brass nicely brought out in the voicing. Paul Lewis played piano with clear phrasing and a solid, even articulation, but was almost too purely a cog in the larger machine (to change metaphors). There are wit and moods within this piano part that we were not hearing, and to express them is to allow a warmer piano-orchestra dialogue than we were getting — it is there, even in this “symphonic” structure. (Try the Walter Gieseking recording with Hans Rosbaud conducting.)

It will be interesting to see what Nelsons does working with the orchestra on a steady basis, and to see what he does with programming (remember Levine’s amazing first season of programming with Boston? — look it up). This was a very good concert, and more than that with the Brahms. But it was not the best BSO concert of the fall so far. One candidate for that distinction would be the performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony (no. 2) led by Christoph von Dohnányi on October 1st. The audience was left stunned, knowing it had heard something exceptional and great, like sitting through a Sophocles tragedy. Dohnányi and the orchestra put the huge opening movement across with great clarity and force — a sonata-form funeral march whose development section builds to a tremendous clashing dissonant climax, before a return to the piece’s opening with slashing basses and cellos, petering out to muted trumpets and almost New Orleans-style funeral rhythms — the death and dissolution of a great man, if one attends to Mahler’s notes, perhaps the “Titan” figure depicted in the First Symphony (or any man? any woman?). The ensuing Andante ländler became very popular as a concert piece by itself. Debussy and friends walked out of a performance, declaring the movement an unpalatable throwback to Schubert at his most traditional. Dohnányi took Mahler’s prescribed long pause after the first movement, then led the Andante very subdued as a sort of impossible hopeful look back at a happy life. The middle section stirred up the turbulence and despair of the experienced death. The quicker-moving scherzo was also subdued, a further look back at life or a stirring of new life, blossoming out finally in the gorgeous long descending phrase for the violins at the end. Dohnányi never let us forget that the second and third movements belong with the tragic first, not escaping its dark light. Mezzo Sarah Connolly gave a strong, beautiful rendition of the Urlicht (Dawn) folk poem and led into the huge finale where soprano Camilla Tilling and the magnificent Tanglewood Festival Chorus joined the orchestra to pass through turmoil again, but now on to sublimity and transcendence — “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du…” — “You shall arise….”

Prominent English composer and conductor Thomas Adès has been making yearly appearances with the BSO, and one hopes this will continue, he offers such interesting and unusual programs and leads them so effectively. On October 12th he opened with a highly atmospheric account of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture (a.k.a. “Fingal’s Cave”). The piece sounded fresh and new, and the ominous feel of it worked as a good prelude to Charles Ives’s Orchestral Set No. 2, which concludes with a meditation on the loss at sea of the Lusitania. The Ives is wonderful music, with a sonorous “Elegy to Our Forefathers,” then a depiction of a large outdoor gathering with boisterous conflicting popular tunes, and finally the somber Lusitania tribute, swelling to a great brass chorale. The BSO under Adès played this music with great precision and commitment. The orchestra ought to play Ives more regularly, and give the Boston audience the chance to come to know and love this music. Adès followed the Ives with his own piece “Polaris,” Voyage for Orchestra, harking back again to the Mendelssohn sea mood, and reflecting the third Ives piece with a pattern of slow buildup to a blazing brass catharsis. The work is simple in a way, especially heard back to back with Ives, proceeding with incremental changes like the music of American “minimalists” such as John Adams. The audience received the piece with more enthusiasm than I can remember for a new work at BSO concerts. After intermission Adès led a very dynamic and dramatic Franck Symphony in D Minor, this once so popular, now somewhat moribund chestnut really coming to life. Everybody left this concert stimulated and happy.

Charles Dutoit, one of the BSO’s most welcome returning guests, is in town for two concert series, which will culminate with performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, as a tribute for the composer’s centenary, and a tribute for the upcoming Veterans’ Day-Remembrance Day weekend. On October 31st, Dutoit led diverse pieces that also partake in a mood of loss and remembrance. Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, issuing from the years of World War I, sounded both more beautiful and more sad than ever. The piece flowed very naturally, played with great bloom and warmth by the orchestra, yet Dutoit found a three-dimensionality in it, a sense of more than one thing going on at once — beauty and sadness, yes, but also a sense of personal identity behind the classically sculpted phrases, as if they were the masks or surfaces of a cast of feeling characters. John Ferrillo played the featured oboe part wonderfully, and Dutoit rightly walked through the orchestra at the end to shake his hand. There followed Krzysztof Penderecki’s 2001 “Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Three Cellos and Orchestra,” originally commissioned by and dedicated to Dutoit, and played now to honor Penderecki’s 80th birthday. It is a long work, running thin in places, but with an overall soulful inspiration and with many fine passages, some furious, some quiet, like the beautiful subdued ending. The style is in the main tonal with modernist-expressionist highlights — not like Penderecki’s earlier radical, musically abstract works. The three cellos — Gautier Capuçon, Daniel Müller-Schott, and Arto Noras here — seemed voices of persons caught in some kind of Eastern-European devastation, with the world about them — represented by the orchestra — alternately welling up with horrible surprises and calming down into almost consoling gestures. The cellos sang out, complained, talked to each other, and resigned themselves. Dutoit concluded the concert with a colorful reading of Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations of 1899, where great English concert music found itself again after more than a century’s moribund state (since Purcell and Handel). English song and hymnody, the countryside, and English personality all come forward in this sophisticated and colorful symphonic work. Elgar paints portraits of his wife and himself and a series of friends, but all with a sense of loss and looking back — and the large “Nimrod” Adagio has become a standard work in Britain to commemorate the dead. The sense of loss resonated with the Ravel and Penderecki.

After all this symphonic work, it was nice for a contrast to hear András Schiff’s piano recital at Jordan Hall November 1st, and it picked up on the Elgar: variations were the order of the day. The hall was packed, every seat taken, and everyone sat absolutely quiet and attentive through Bach’s Goldberg Variations, taken with all the repeats. The crowd clearly loved this music and was hungry for it, and Schiff held one’s attention, every variation sounding different, every repeat sounding different, with much spirit of dance and play. Schiff played with a lovely tone, and adapted his sound to the music as it changed, despite not ever using the sustaining pedal. It was all a great pleasure, though a bit gemütlich — none of the sense of the avant-garde about it that Glenn Gould and others have drawn out of this music. The same could be said of the performance of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, which followed intermission. Schiff sounded like a true Romantic here, with plenty of splash and color (and pedal), and every variation had its own character, as in the Bach. But there is a radical and disturbing — and frankly, in a good sense, hard to take — quality about this music, with its fragmentation and strange harmonies, which increases as the piece goes on and which Schiff muted. (Peter Serkin brought it all out in a Jordan Hall performance some years ago.) Schiff, after more than two and a half hours of his recital, offered a gigantic encore: the finale of Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 111, another sublime set of variations. This was the best performance of the evening, and a truly great one: rapt, noble, balanced, passionate, wild, fully organic.

About the author

Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

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