I try not to make a habit of comparing different performances of the same piece in print. Often, when I read that kind of review without having experienced the earlier performance, I wind up feeling left out. However, as of this week, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D twice in the past two months. August’s Tanglewood performance with Leonidas Kavakos as both soloist and conductor — a rendition that just about knocked me out of my chair — is still fresh in my mind. As I watched BSO music director Andris Nelsons guide the orchestra through the concerto on Thursday evening, with Augustin Hadelich’s violin singing out through the instrument’s highest notes, I found myself thinking on the choices that can make two performances of the same piece, by the same orchestra, sound and feel so radically different.
On the orchestra side, Thursday’s performance was neater and more regimented than the Tanglewood performance with Kavakos. Part of this was a function of having a separate conductor and soloist, and another could have been the less pressed rehearsal schedule. But more important than that was the moderate course Nelsons charted through the score: settled tempos, not an accent out of place, no surprises. It sounded like he was aiming at a Platonic ideal of what the orchestra’s role should sound like, leaving as much space for Hadelich as possible.
The violinist played with Apollonian attitude, applying vibrato judiciously to long phrases and bringing out the highest passages with crystalline integrity. For cadenzas, he picked Fritz Kreisler’s zippy, ornate renditions of the concerto’s themes. In the third movement’s variations on an earworm theme, both orchestra and soloist turned up the heat a touch, but the sound never strayed toward the wild.
Once any musician or ensemble attains a certain level of excellence — a level that BSO audiences expect as baseline — so much comes down to personal preference. Apollo or Dionysus? Smooth or forceful? Stoic or volatile? I have my preferences, which is why I personally liked but did not love this particular Beethoven concerto. Seeing the faces of those who loved it, as they rose to their feet, was its own reward.
Nelsons continued his Strauss streak with a deep cut, and Symphony Hall’s recording equipment was taking in every note for eventual CD release. This was “Symphonia domestica,” a symphony-length tone poem that describes a day in the life of the Strauss family — Papa Richard, Mama Pauline (an opera singer), and baby Franz. Distinct themes represent the characters; the child’s theme, warmly introduced by Mark McEwen on the oboe d’amore, was easiest to pick out. The day plays out in various scenes: bathtime with the baby, the parents singing a lullaby, the clock gently chiming, a rowdy breakfast table, Mama and Papa’s marriage bed. (Whooping brass indicates the same thing to slightly more explicit effect in the prelude to “Der Rosenkavalier,” which came along a few years later.)
When the piece was new, some critics attacked Strauss for finding his family life, in his words, “quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander,” or any of the other literary figures he honored with a tone poem. My issue is different: his family life may have been fascinating, but this piece isn’t. The piece offered many charming moments (the fugue at the breakfast table rose to a delightful roar) but maybe there were simply too many moments. Or not enough moments, mixed with too much rumination.
In the end, this is a matter of personal preference as well. The end didn’t provoke an uproar of bravos, but the applause was enthusiastic and long-lasting. Some listeners were absolutely enthralled by “Symphonia domestica.” But if you’re like me, sometime in the third section you may start feeling like a child again — stuck in bed, watching the clock, willing it to strike seven already so you can wake up your parents and ask for waffles.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday. Repeats Sept. 28 and Oct. 1. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.