LENOX — The visits of BSO conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink have been a fixture of recent Symphony Hall seasons, typically arriving toward the end of each year and drawing a mellow line under the sturm und drang of cancellations, conductor searches, and whatever else came before. But Haitink has had a more intermittent presence at Tanglewood of late, returning this past weekend for the first time in five years. He’ll also be back again on Sunday to lead the BSO's traditional season-closing performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
These days, at 84, Haitink brings no heavy-handed interpretive agendas or grand itineraries for adventure beyond the canon. But in his conducting there remains a sense of accumulated wisdom, and a certain lightness of touch, that consistently draw rewarding results from the orchestra. And so it was on Saturday night, when he returned to Mahler's Fourth Symphony — a work he conducted in April in Boston — and led a poised and handsomely contoured performance of this most approachable of Mahler scores.
Moments that stood out included violinist Elita Kang's piquant solos in the second movement, played, as Mahler instructs, on a retuned violin. The Swedish singer Camilla Tilling was the vocal soloist for the final movement, tracing Mahler’s portrait of life in heaven with generous quantities of creamy soprano tone. The string sound Haitink drew throughout was uncommonly rich, though in the first and third movements in particular, a few moments of more intricate musical gearwork and some passing emotional complexities were at times hard to discern beneath the veil of prettiness.
Before the Mahler came Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in an elegantly streamlined and insightful account by the German violinist Isabelle Faust, making her Tanglewood debut. Faust brought a particularly welcome edginess and intensity to the so-called “Turkish” episodes in the finale. For the most part Haitink and the orchestra partnered her seamlessly, even if one wished on occasion for a more shared conception in the particulars of Mozart’s sound world.
At Sunday’s annual Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert, the spotlight turned to the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, giving its final performance of the season. This year’s crop of TMC fellows had some remarkable opportunities, including participating last week in the American premiere of George Benjamin’s opera “Written on Skin” under the composer’s direction.
One can only imagine many of them also valued the chance to play under the veteran baton of Christoph von Dohnanyi, who led Sunday’s matinee performance of Mahler’s First Symphony and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9. The soloist in the Mozart was another veteran, Emanuel Ax, who, as part of a generally well-shaped performance, conveyed the long singing lines and operatic atmosphere of the slow movement with particular grace, matched by the orchestra at every turn.
But it was the Mahler First that landed with extra force on Sunday afternoon, in a performance that was alert and vibrant from its famously mysterious opening chord.
Dohnanyi’s conducting continues to be a marvel in its precision of musical intention, and here he seemed to also be feeding off of the youthful energy and commitment radiating from every corner of this orchestra. The second movement’s rustic Ländler had the right heft and thrust; the third movement was duly unsettling, its tone set by Michael Chiarello’s bewitching bass solo; and these committed players seemed to give everything they had in the rousing final measures of the finale, with all seven horn players standing shoulder to shoulder across the back of the orchestra. Passing issues in intonation or the occasional extra harshness of attack seemed a small price to pay for music-making of such dedication and excitement.
It will be fascinating to see how Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s next music director, will choose to make his mark at the TMC, as a conductor not much older than some of the players in this orchestra. It’s a process that may begin playing out as early as next summer, just prior to Nelsons’s official start the following fall. During his tenure, James Levine created a lot of momentum around annual TMC performances of opera in concert, and that would be at least one tradition that Nelsons, who began his career in the opera house and is a regular guest at places like Bayreuth and Covent Garden, would be clearly well-positioned to take up and make his own.