LENOX – When Serge Koussevitzky chose Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the concert inaugurating Tanglewood’s Music Shed 75 years ago, he explained it was “not only because it is the greatest masterpiece in musical literature, but because I wanted to hear the voice of Tanglewood singing Schiller’s words calling all nations to the brotherhood of man.”
These days, the Ninth of course closes the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s season at Tanglewood every year, as it did again on Sunday afternoon, and one might say it is the piece itself that has become “the voice of Tanglewood.” In some recent summers it’s been paired with a short choral work, most memorably John Harbison’s “Koussevitzky Said:,” premiered last year. This time the occasion was unadorned, the Ninth unpaired, but it was no less hard-hitting for that fact thanks to the presence of the conductor Bernard Haitink on the podium.
You would imagine that, at 84, this distinguished maestro knows the Ninth forward, backward, and upside down — and he does — which made it intriguing that Haitink chose to conduct Sunday’s performance using a score. There could be innumerable practical reasons for this choice, but in the moment it seemed to telegraph something of the humility and respect implicit in his broader musical approach, perhaps even a sense that a work with the depth and complexity of the Ninth does not allow for an honest performance by rote. (It’s of course impossible to generalize on the subject of performing from memory, though in his book “The Compleat Conductor,” Gunther Schuller does observe an “across-the-surface-of-the-music superficiality” in the work of many who ascend the podium without scores.)
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Whatever the case, Sunday’s turned out to be a wise and masterly account. This was a Ninth completely unmannered yet also distinctive, led spaciously and without haste. From the first measures onward, Haitink conferred on the music both a sense of inevitability and surprise. Phrasing in the opening movement had an emphatic and chiseled quality, but one that was achieved without any outward willfulness. Even musical moments that in other readings can feel merely transitional were here given their own organic shape and imbued with a sense of expressive meaning.
In the slow movement, the first violins floated the melody with a slightly deglossed ensemble sound, a bit grainier than usual. It may well have been the fatigue of a long summer churning out performances, but in this context you could have easily mistaken it for a charming old-world patina. In the finale, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang with palpable force and conviction. Some accounts mark the score’s most climactic moments with a deluge of shrill choral exuberance, but Haitink instead drew out full, broadly contoured paragraphs of choral sound, notable for a tonal depth that focused one’s thoughts on the meaning of Schiller’s iconic text.
The afternoon’s vocal soloists — Erin Wall, Tamara Mumford, Joseph Kaiser, and John Relyea — handled their roles honorably, with Relyea in particular bringing a sense of occasion to his dramatic first entrance, convening the multitudes. During the ovation afterward, the orchestra at first declined Haitink’s request to stand and instead joined the audience in applauding a conductor who had just led one of the more memorable Tanglewood Ninths of recent summer seasons.
Two nights earlier came the Tanglewood debut of a conductor at the other end of his professional journey. The young Latvian musician Andris Poga was named as one of the BSO’s two assistant conductors well before his countryman, and fellow Andris, was appointed as its next music director. Now both he and Andris Nelsons will presumably have more opportunities than expected to converse in their native tongue at Symphony Hall.
Poga’s official BSO debut came without much fanfare last season, with a performance of Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” tacked onto the second half of an otherwise un-conducted program designed to showcase the players’ self-sufficiency. Friday night’s program was a meatier assignment, if still somewhat less than revealing. It opened with a clean but circumscribed performance of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony and closed with an account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 that felt capably supervised from the podium rather than driven by any particularly urgent interpretive vision. Poga’s most impressive work of the evening came in its central panel, Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds.
It’s a piece that receives fewer performances than you might think, and Peter Serkin seems to attend to all of them. Having performed the work at the Bard Music Festival earlier this month, the pianist brought the concerto back to Tanglewood, where he’s been the soloist for three of the four times it’s been done here in the past.
And with good reason. Serkin has an unmatched grasp of Stravinsky’s incisive keyboard style, so much so that he occasionally makes other outwardly distant composers sound Stravinskian in their DNA. On Friday he brought an electric energy and almost Solomonic gravity to the work’s austere, Bach-haunted lines. For his part, Poga capably drew out the improbable warmth of the orchestral writing in the slow movement, and brought a welcome sense of shape and flow to the angularity of the finale.
Looking ahead, the fall BSO programs would seem to promise an unusual density of high-profile concerts, beginning with a pair of subscription weeks led by Christoph von Dohnanyi that includes performances of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. Beyond that, some of the more imaginatively curated nights in recent seasons have arrived courtesy of the composer Thomas Adès, who returns in early October to conduct the BSO in another distinctive program, one that surrounds his own work “Polaris” with music by Mendelssohn, Ives, and — really? — Cesar Franck.
The fall will also bring the BSO conducting debut of Daniel Harding, leading the US premiere of a new work by Mark-Anthony Turnage, and the return of Charles Dutoit to lead three performance’s of Britten’s monumental “War Requiem.” In the middle of it all, Nelsons will make his first appearance as music director designate. The incoming maestro was forced to withdraw from his scheduled Verdi Requiem this summer after an accident in Bayreuth left him with a severe concussion. He has since returned to conducting, with appearances in Birmingham and at the Proms, and many more stacked up in the coming weeks including an “Elektra” at Covent Garden. In Boston, he’ll lead Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” Brahms’s Symphony No. 3, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 with the eloquent Paul Lewis as soloist. Then he’ll be back in March for a single concert performance of Strauss’s “Salome.”