Illness has not been kind to the Boston Symphony Orchestra of late. Last week came news that its entire European tour, years in the planning, had been scrapped in the wake of a COVID outbreak that has torn through the ranks of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and affected more than 30 onstage performers.
Then, this week brought word of vocal soloist Lise Davidsen’s withdrawal, due to unspecified illness, from the BSO’s performance of Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” This was a big loss. The gifted Norwegian soprano had been slated to appear for
only one night with the orchestra, but the prospect of hearing an anointed young star, recently given “the key to the Met,” performing the most profound and beautiful vocal creations of Strauss’s last years, had made this evening one of the most keenly anticipated of the season.
Yet off it went, and on went the show Thursday night, with the “Four Last Songs” swapped out for Strauss’s Symphonic Fantasy from his opera “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” which had already been slated for subscription performances later this week. It formed part of an all-Strauss program, together with “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” and the “Symphonia Domestica.”
That’s a lot of Strauss and more is coming next week. All of it is no doubt timed to coincide with Deutsche Grammophon’s release next month of a new 7-CD Strauss box set assembled from Nelsons’s performances over the years with both the BSO and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Even so, this week’s programming, which was on the books for April 22-26 long before the recent bout of illnesses, feels stale. Nelsons led both “Till Eulenspiegel” and the “Symphonia Domestica” as recently as 2019, which, given the lost season-plus of concerts due to the pandemic, is not a long time ago. And he actually led four performances of the Symphonic Fantasy as recently as October. I can’t recall another time that the same work was scheduled for two sets of repeat performances within the same subscription season. The BSO can and must do better.
Fortunately, there was nothing stale about the performances on Thursday night. Nelsons once again demonstrated his seemingly instinctive feel for Strauss’s music, its wide emotional canvas and its pure sonic opulence, and the orchestra — winds and brass especially — delivered all he asked for. Both “Till Eulenspiegel” and the “Symphonia Domestica” were full of precisely characterized orchestral storytelling. Nelsons brought out the roguish humor in the former and found the hearth-side warmth of daily domestic life in the latter, Strauss’s portrait of the artist as family man, of the hero, one might say, in his loungewear.
It was a canny move for Strauss, who was living in Switzerland in 1946, to salvage the most appealing music from his infrequently spotted fairy-tale opera “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” (“The Woman Without a Shadow”) and repackage it for the orchestral stage. It was also a move born of necessity during the composer’s sad, late-in-life period of financial precariousness, a result of his deeply problematic choices during the Nazi regime catching up with him. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss’s librettist for the original opera, had presciently warned the composer back in 1918 to be wary of his self-serving tendencies, and his “neglect of all the higher standards of intellectual existence.” To no avail. When the Nazis came to power, Strauss gave in to precisely these sides of his character and assumed the presidency of the Reich Chamber of Music. And while he never joined the party, things did not get less complicated from there.
Did returning after the war to this early “unshadowed” opera provide a sense of solace for the aging composer left to reckon with his own darknesses? It’s easy to imagine so, especially given the sheer luxurious sweep and the prodigious invention of this score. On Thursday Nelsons led the BSO in a tautly controlled yet surgingly expressive performance. Even so, one subscription week should have sufficed.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, April 21; repeats April 22, 24, and 26.