The most memorable Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of 2012 came in November, when the Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski, in his BSO debut, led a searing account of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. His music-making tends to crackle with fresh ideas and intellectual engagement. That impression was reinforced by the conductor’s Tanglewood debut on Friday night, leading the BSO in a program of works by Wagner, Brahms, and Liszt.
That grouping of composers suggests at least an implicit glimpse back into the famous polemics of 19th-century Austro-German music, but Jurowski’s program also reminded us how easily historic battle lines can be overdrawn. Friday opened with the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” — a work that peers not forward into the music of the future but backward into a fantasy of the medieval German past. And neither was Brahms’s antagonism toward Wagner’s music as unequivocal as myth suggests: Brahms in fact rolled up his sleeves and helped copy out the orchestral parts for the Viennese premiere of “Meistersinger.”
In Friday’s performance Jurowski chose an unconventional layout of the orchestra onstage, fanning out the basses, for instance, across the back of the orchestra, directly behind the brass. From where I sat, the clarity and balances achieved were not always ideal, but Jurowski’s account was elegantly paced and thoughtfully detailed. After intermission, Brahms’s First Symphony received a particularly taut and cogent performance, with the BSO’s strings reduced to a size closer to what Brahms might have known in his day.
Jurowski’s podium technique prizes concision of gesture and he manages a striking degree of orchestral control through a minimum of motion. At times on Friday this control seemed to bring a certain tightness to the ensemble sound, but the musical insights and micro-sculp-ting of phrases, particularly in the middle two movements of the Brahms, kept the ear perpetually engaged. Between the Wagner and the Brahms, French pianist Jean-Yves Thiabaudet took on Liszt’s “Totentanz,” in a performance that wed his signature keyboard suavity with a sharp-edged and impassioned virtuosity. Jurowski unfortunately won’t be back with the BSO next season, but beyond that, he certainly deserves a place in the BSO’s roster of frequently returning guests.
On Saturday night, Lothar Koenigs, music director of the Welsh National Opera, was on the podium to lead Act III from Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” It was surprising to see so many empty seats in the Shed, especially given the night’s deluxe casting that included Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Katarina Dalayman as Brünn-hilde. But those that did make it were treated to some first-class performances.
Terfel and Dalayman have sung these roles together in the Met’s recent Robert Lepage production of Wagner’s “Ring.” The ineptitude of that production is by now infamous, and it was easy to imagine these two singers experiencing a sense of relief in the relative freedom of Saturday’s concert performance, with nary a Lepagean spinning plank in sight.
Terfel in particular delivered a riveting performance, combining sheer vocal power with an absorbing command of nuance over a wide emotional range, from his furious denunciation of Brünn-hilde’s disobedience, to his singing of great tenderness and beauty near the end of the act, when he bids reluctant farewell to his most cherished daughter. Dalayman’s tonally lustrous singing made her a fully worthy collaborator, projecting a complex blend of defiance, sadness, empathy and resignation.
As Sieglinde, Amber Wagner sang with focus and immediacy, and the assembly of eight Valkyries, standing shoulder to shoulder at the conductor’s right, produced an impressive wall of vibrant soprano sound. Koenigs, for his part, drew from the BSO a flexibly paced and sensitive account of the score.
On Sunday afternoon, Pinchas Zukerman was on hand for the second summer in a row with a program of Baroque works led mostly from his perch as violin soloist. Of course for the modern symphony orchestra, Baroque repertoire has increasingly become contested terrain, claimed as the province of early music specialists. That said, its enduring appeal as part of the BSO’s summer diet has been obvious from the large turnout at both programs.
In seasons past the orchestra has occasionally tapped emissaries from the early music world, such as the conductors Bernard Labadie or Ton Koopman, to work with the ensemble, bringing along the fruit of their specialist explorations.
Zukerman does not exactly fit this bill, in that, as a performer, he seems to have entirely slept through the birth and flourishing over recent decades of new approaches to Baroque performance. His playing on Sunday of Vivaldi’s Concerto in C minor (RV 199), bracketing a certain casual attitude toward intonation, had a heaviness of articulation and uniformity of phrasing that made it sound definitively, and unflatteringly, old school. In another Vivaldi Concerto (RV 547), he shared soloist duties with his wife, the cellist Amanda Forsyth, turning in a solid if unexceptional performance.
Zukerman fared somewhat better in Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G, displaying an appealingly focused amber tone. And it is always a pleasure to hear principal players from the orchestra stand alongside him as soloists, this time in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (featuring Elizabeth Rowe, flute; John Ferrillo, oboe; and Thomas Rolfs, trumpet). But taken as a whole, this orchestra has trafficked in the Baroque more persuasively on many other occasions.