Nelsons at Tanglewood 2016, One Weekend

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Andris Nelsons conudcts the Mahler Ninth at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scatt.
Andris Nelsons conudcts the Mahler Ninth at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scatt.

July 29 2016, Friday, 8:00 pm
Koussevitzky Music Shed

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Jonathan Biss, piano

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat, K.595
Mahler – Symphony No. 9

July 30 2016, Saturday, 8:00 pm
Koussevitzky Music Shed

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Augustin Hadelich, violin

JohnCorigliano – Fantasia on an Ostinato
Sibelius – Violin Concerto
Beethoven – Symphony No. 7

Perhaps it is unduly portentous to say that the still new Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is enigmatic, but his uneven performances and inconsistent approaches to interpretation and orchestral sound have been somewhat puzzling. These two recent concerts, now, have impressed on me that he has finally hit his stride with the orchestra, although he has already achieved some important successes over the past two years—above all, the concert performances of Strauss’s Salome and Elektra—some superb Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and and there has been a lot to like in his  Brahms. These Tanglewood concerts are in fact not the first which I thought showed that he had developed in the orchestra a new style of playing together as a group—one very different from that so painstakingly developed by James Levine and insouciantly left to tend itself by Seiji Ozawa. It was clear even at the time that his strange adoption of deafening dynamics at some concerts was experimental, and not the only instance of this rather daring approach to establishing oneself as music director of an elite American orchestra. Yannick Nézet-Séguin of Philadelphia and Jaap van Zweden, soon to take over the New York Philharmonic, are examples of the opposite method. In their own ways, they have developed consistent ways of working with the orchestra, a consistent, well-defined sound, and coherent, previously thought-out interpretations of the standard repertoire, rather broader and more specific to individual composers and works in the case of Nézet-Séguin, than in van Zweden’s more limited range—at least as far as I have heard in the performances I’ve heard.

While I respect and enjoy the work of both these maestri, the Mahler Ninth above all, shows that special esteem is due to the risky, exploratory path of Andris Nelsons.

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was one of Levine’s signature works. He returned to it often, always, in my experience, with great success. Some of Levine’s performances fell ever so slightly, ever so frustratingly short of total engagement among the musicians and the audience, and he himself was fully aware of that. There is that unforgettable Saturday evening Brahms German Requiem in Symphony Hall, fortunately available as a recording from the BSO, and Levine’s comments about the shortcomings of the performances leading up to it. Levine always seemed to get the Mahler Ninth just right—detailed, distinguished with gorgeous solo playing, homogeneous in ensemble, and organic in concept—and the performances were deeply moving. Nelsons’s Ninth could not be more different. He seemed entirely in the moment: one had a sense of dramatic uncertainty, of anticipation, as if the composer were feeling his way through the music he was writing, phrase by phrase, in our very presence. Nelsons has greatly diminished the dichotomy of solo and full orchestra that was a prime characteristic of Levine’s conducting, so that one never loses one’s sense of ensemble, even in the most striking solo passages. As a group and individually, the musicians produce a darker, more middle-European sound, pungent when needed, even harsh, much to the advantage of Mahler’s music.

Nelsons concentrated on this immediacy in the first two movements and encouraged the players in spontaneous expression, both in phrasing and in color. The effect was electric for the audience, and the musicians seemed to enjoy it, and to enjoy playing under Maestro Nelsons. From moment to moment, players and listeners concentrated intensely on the score. (And the often distracted and noisy Music Shed audience was raptly silent.) With all this, one never lost the sense that one was listening to an orchestra of the highest ability, or the sense of organic unity in Mahler’s construction—a total contrast to the seemingly formless Sixth Nelsons and the BSO played in Carnegie Hall last year.

This is the first time I have been aware of an important communality between the Ninth and the Fifth Symphonies. In an extraordinary concert with the Berlin Philharmonic at Symphony Hall years ago, Herbert von Karajan revealed most strikingly the way in which Mahler conceived the first three movements as music struggling to take form out of chaos and the last two as music that was completely realized, harmonious in every way, if occasionally dissonant, the Adagietto a cantilena, and the final rondo contrapuntal in nature. Nelsons saw this profound duality in the Ninth as well, with the first two movements dominated by an riotous array of tone colors, instrumental combinations, pause, hesitations, and distractions, reflecting a full, if somewhat morbidly eschatological, engagement with life. In the final two movements Mahler contemplates this from the other side of the threshold, or almost. The music is as flowing and coherent as it is nostalgic and removed in death. This was obviously a perfectly realized reading of the score, richly detailed and deeply understood, as unforgettable as Michael Tilson Thomas’s Fifth at Tanglewood, and Levine’s own Ninth.

Much less impressive was Jonathan Biss’s run-through of Mozart’s Concerto in B Flat, K. 595. In the past Biss’s playing in solo recitals has struck me as singularly heavy, even ponderous. Here his effort to meet Mozart—or at least the Mozartkugeln Mozart—halfway led him to play as lightly as possible, and it didn’t ring true. Biss over-pedaled as if it were a general lubricant for passagework—and everything else in the score. Occasionally muddy or botched phrases and an impression of starting and stopping distracted the listener from the flow and unity of the movements and the piece. In the accompaniment Nelsons elicited enthusiastic playing from the orchestra, with slightly more strings than I have noted in performances of other Mozart concerti in Symphony Hall and Carnegie. Nelsons and Biss did not seem to have the close interconnection that Nelsons has cultivated with other soloists, but the main shortcoming was that Biss simply had nothing to say about Mozart’s sublime last piano concerto.

Saturday evening’s concert began with John Corigliano’s “Fantasia on an Ostinato,” an obvious enough companion to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which concluded the program, because it is constructed around the ostinato of its Allegretto, and an effective one, because of Corigliano’s outstanding craftsmanship, its haunting mood, and the composer’s compelling investigation of the nature of repetition in music, the ostinato, and its transformation into an aesthetic in minimalism, the dominant fashion in music in the 1980s, when it was written. The Fantasia stands on its own as a work of absolute music, but it has a program as well, not a narrative or an evocation of a place, or any other traditional program, but as a musical essay on minimalism. As he wrote in a note included in the program, “I approached this task with mixed feelings about the contemporary phenomenon known as minimalism, for while I admire its emphasis on attractive textures and its occasional ability to achieve a hypnotic quality (not unlike late Beethoven), I do not care for its excessive repetition, its lack of architecture, and its overall emotional sterility.” Corigliano first conceived it as a piece for solo piano, commissioned by the Seventh International Van Cliburn Piano Competition of 1985. The following year a more formal orchestral version was premiered by the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. Hence this work brings us back to the heyday of minimalism. Some people, especially opera-goers, may be surprised to read a sentence that implies that minimalism peaked so many years ago, but there it is. In his “Fantasia,” a full-blooded, dramatic, and emotionally involving work (rather more in the realm of deep grief, dread, and terror, that Beethoven’s melancholy and mysterious original), Corigliano takes Beethoven’s repeated motif through myriad transformations, often with high woodwinds or brilliant percussion dialoguing or descanting against the lower strings. In the first part, he sets up his premise, rather like the exposition of a sonata-form movement, and in the second, he varies it almost extravagantly, finally returning to a more literal statement of Beethoven’s motif, but still with interruptions, creating a fragmentary impression, as if it were an archaeological artefact. This was rich material for Nelsons, with his passion for the sonorities of the orchestra and its individual sections. Could the “Fantasia” have been made to sound more cohesive? That is, beyond the structure of the composer’s writing, which is already cohesive, to play out in a more cohesive flow? Perhaps.

Augustin Hadelich and Nelsons achieved one of those unforgettable heaven-on-earth moments in their reading of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. This is a rare occasion when I find I can’t go into much detail, but simply have to say that the whole performance was sublime—entirely successful, although the soloist and the conductor were pursuing different aspects of the piece. Hadelich spun out a long line, with an aristocratic poise recalling older generations, while Nelsons pursued a vast range of richly textured colors in the orchestra. His experience of the music was much more in the moment, and vigorously dramatic than Hadelich’s. The result was that the two enhanced one another’s music-making through contrast. One of Nelsons’s skills I’ve most consistently admired is his ability to engage the soloist, and this Sibelius, so far, has been the high point.

Nelsons’s Beethoven Seventh was perhaps less immediately striking, original, or exciting as that conducted by his countryman, Andris Poga, in the Music Shed at the 2013 Festival, but it had its own very attractive and revealing strengths. This was a large-scale performance with a large compliment of strings. The tempi in the fast movements were moderate, and gave the music space to breathe. As one might expect from this ex-trumpeter, the winds were prominent and beautifully played, with solos emerging from the ensemble rather than standing out as soloists. The horns were especially strong in the texture and were played splendidly. In fact the playing of the musicians, overall, was one of the remarkable features of the performance. The BSO seems to be in top form and to be enjoying themselves. Curiously, Nelsons omitted the first movement exposition repeat, but observed almost all of them in the last two movements. This gave the first movement the character of an ouverture of a Baroque suite in the French style, and the last three movements, with their ostinato rhythms repeated phrases, the character of dance movements in such a suite. This reminded me how much Beethoven’s love of Handel, developed early in his career the van Swieten concerts of the 1790s, informed the Seventh, as an “apotheosis of the dance,” as Wagner called it. In fact its does seem to function on an ideal plane rather than as music a choreographer would want to inflict on human dancers. The Eighth Symphony as well, I believe, reflects this dance-like, Handelian quality.

Unfortunately I could not hear his Ninth in late August. If what we have heard so far is any indicator, it will not be hard to live with Mr. Nelsons as a Beethoven interpreter.

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