Nelsons keeps it familiar in Tanglewood concerts
LENOX — With the daunting prospect of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony ahead next weekend, Andris Nelsons chose a relatively undemanding way to introduce himself to Tanglewood this season. Saturday and Sunday’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, Nelsons’ first of the summer, consisted almost entirely of works he led during the previous Symphony Hall season. It was both a highlight reel of his inaugural season as music director and a preview of the BSO’s late-summer European tour.
Leading off Saturday’s concert was the sole addition to the already-performed repertoire — Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, in a performance that was a complete triumph. This least-loved of the Beethoven concertos is infrequently programmed, and then largely out of obligation to the few dusty corners of the composer’s output. Saturday’s performance swept all that away, allowing you to hear afresh its unusual construction and, in the last movement, some clever humor. It was a case study in Nelsons doing what he does best: eliciting a hidden quantum of dynamic energy from a piece and freeing it from any sense of routine. He worked hand in glove with three superb French soloists: pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Capucon brothers, violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier, all of whom played with great energy and panache.
After intermission came Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, a day after the release of the BSO’s new recording of the piece. It’s clear by now that Nelsons has his own idiosyncratic way with this contested work, mostly emphasizing a slow boil over nervous tension. To my ears his broad tempos rob the opening movement of some of its power, especially at its climax, but one hears details in Shostakovich’s scoring that would otherwise go undetected. The second movement, by contrast, came off with such ferocity that when a car alarm was heard at the end it seemed not at all out of place. The finale’s forced rejoicing sounded hollow and cartoonish, just as the composer must have intended.
The Sunday matinee began with Haydn’s Symphony No. 90, one of the less familiar of those falling between the sets written for Paris and London. The wind playing, crucial to this work, was superb throughout. The finale contains a stretch of silence designed to fool you into thinking the piece is over, but so many audience members began applauding so heartily that Nelsons had to wait twice as long to play the actual coda. This spoiled the gag a bit but still made for a fun conclusion.
The lone specimen of contemporary music was Australian composer Brett Dean’s “Dramatis personae,” a three-movement trumpet concerto given its American premiere in November. Dean’s suggestive movement titles — “Fall of a Superhero,” “Soliloquy,” “The Accidental Revolutionary” — give rise to a wealth of evocative moments: the mysterious, percussion-heavy opening; muted trumpet lines over dusky microtonal chords; Ivesian cacophony at the end. But there was a lot of filler linking them, and it was unclear at the end what it all added up to. Still, it was played with gleaming precision by its dedicatee, Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger.
Closing out the weekend was Strauss’s tone poem “Don Quixote.” Nelsons’s Strauss conducting is all Cinescope — bright colors, mercurial shifts in mood, lots of dramatic pauses. At times on Sunday it was a little hammy, but if there was ever a piece that can take some narrative enhancement, this is it. Besides, it made the funny parts especially effective — those bleating sheep in the second variation sounded like something out of Schoenberg’s expressionist phase.
If you couldn’t see the soloist, you would likely know from the cheers as he walked on stage that it was perennial favorite Yo-Yo Ma. It was clear that a substantial portion of the audience was there largely to bask in his presence. And though the cellist does have the primary narrative role, Ma, whose tone and personality can fill any venue, understood that he was also one storyteller among many in the orchestra — violist Steven Ansell and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe chief among them — and seemed to delight as much in the collaborative moments as in solos. Yet when Ma did command the spotlight, as at the errant knight’s death, he played with a signal honesty that seemed to silence the Berkshires with a mere whisper.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At: Tanglewood, Lenox
Saturday and Sunday
David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@ gmail.com.