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Nelsons and the BSO give us Brahms to be thankful for

Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO in an all-Brahms program at Symphony Hall on Nov. 23.
Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO in an all-Brahms program at Symphony Hall on Nov. 23.Winslow Townson

For the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s final concerts of 2021, music director Andris Nelsons has chosen an “All Brahms” program: Serenade No. 2 in A, and Symphony No. 1 in C minor. “All Brahms” programs are always a roll of the dice. You can get “All Bleak, All Bombast, and All Boring.” Or, if you’re lucky, you get “All Bracing, All Bright, and All Beautiful.” Tuesday’s Symphony Hall audience was lucky: both pieces received superb performances.

Brahms completed the Second Serenade in 1859 and dedicated it to Clara Schumann. The score for this 30-minute chamber work calls for no percussion, no brass, and … no violins; in essence it’s a wind serenade with string accompaniment. The graceful Allegro moderato pits a rising theme in the clarinets and bassoons against a more static clarinet theme, the two conjuring a lazy autumn afternoon. A brief Scherzo, hopscotching with cross-rhythms, is followed by an Adagio non troppo passacaglia in A minor, with the melody drifting in variations like smoke or milkweed floss. Brahms’s marking for the lightly skipping Quasi menuetto must be his little joke, or perhaps it’s his idea of a children’s minuet, with a hide-and-seek Trio. The exuberant Rondo finale features piccolo trills that might be the children’s high-pitched squealing.

Some performances zip right along. Nelsons luxuriated. The BSO winds were, from the very first notes, so gorgeously ripe as to make questions of tempo irrelevant, and they had warm support from the 30 violas, cellos, and double basses. The clarinet theme lightened the texture; the agitated development section suggested squirrels squabbling over the last acorn. The Scherzo zigged and zagged, with an insinuating, catch-me-if-you-can Trio; the Adagio, which can meander, became a hypnotic siciliana, John Ferrillo’s wistful oboe seeming to reflect on the composer’s frustrated love for Clara Schumann. Nelsons’s light-footed Quasi menuetto was lilting and gracious, reminding us that Brahms had a sense of humor, and then the Rondo bustled in and out, as if preparing for a celebration. It all ended in a jubilant march, Cynthia Meyers’s piccolo brilliant but never shrill.


Brahms actually began work on his First Symphony before composing either of his serenades; there are sketches that date back to 1855. He didn’t actually finish the piece till 1876, however — surely the longest gestation in symphonic history. Doubtless he felt himself in Beethoven’s shadow. Like Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’s First begins in C minor and ends in C major. His opening movement finds the violins sneaking in a four-note motif — da-da-da-DUM — that recalls the iconic beginning of the Fifth. The Allegretto has the rippling feel of the “Brook” movement from Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Symphony. And critics were quick to “discover” that the big C-major tune in Brahms’s finale is a lot like Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” (Brahms’s rejoinder: “Any idiot can see that.”)


The symphony’s introduction, with its insistent timpani and contrabassoon underlying the motto theme, can be funereal. Nelsons, as in his 2016 live recording with the BSO, moved it along, as if anticipating the struggle ahead. The timpani, marked forte, are often too loud; Timothy Genis wasn’t. Nelsons took a deft paragraphing pause before the Allegro starts up, and then, rather than charging ahead, he created momentum by paying close attention to Brahms’s angular rhythms and maintaining a chamber-orchestra clarity. It was the triumph of logic over speed.


Brahms marked the second movement Andante sostenuto; Nelsons, like most conductors, treated it as an Adagio, according ample room to the rich strings and the solos for oboe (Ferrillo), clarinet (William R. Hudgins), French horn (James Sommerville), and first violin (Tamara Smirnova). The Allegretto started with sleek clarinets; the middle section grew stormy, and then Nelsons let the movement taper off until it became a lullaby.

The finale, which resumes the first movement’s struggle, bristled with raw, nervous energy until the French horns entered with the noble Alphorn theme and the trombones followed with the chorale. The big C-major tune fragmented into thunder and lightning before the Alphorn theme and the flowing second subject returned to point the way forward. Brahms marked the closing pages Piú allegro; Nelsons deviated only by slowing a bit for the return of the chorale before racing to the finish, and that created such a majestic effect that it seemed the right choice.


At Symphony Hall Nov. 23. Repeats Nov. 26–27. Tickets $20-$176. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.