The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Hall season is winding down, but the ensemble hasn’t lost an ounce of focus. On Thursday night, music director Andris Nelsons led an all-Mozart program. With pianist Radu Lupu bringing his minimal approach to Piano Concerto No. 24 in the first half, and the stentorian Tanglewood Festival Chorus driving the iconic Requiem in the second, the evening was a revelatory study in size and scale.
As Nelsons led the orchestra through the crooked, chromatic introduction of the concerto, Lupu reclined in the office chair he uses instead of a piano bench, completely at ease. When he made his entrance it was gentle and deliberate, aware of the sinister storm clouds swirling overhead but not matching their mood. If you want the music to come to you, wow you, and lift you out of your seat, Lupu is not your man. He is an introvert’s pianist. To experience his world you have to lean in and pay close attention, and great rewards came to those who did so.
His dynamics only pushed forte a few times over the course of the piece. The smooth sculpture of his phrases was remarkable; where some would have opted to build tension and volume, he slowly released. The orchestra matched him for subtlety, with some sweet asides from the wind instruments in the second movement Larghetto. The string sound was strong but lopsided, with the low strings all on one side. Putting the second violins on the outside, near the edge of the stage, would have been an especially good idea here.
Though a sacred piece, Mozart’s Requiem covers the full spectrum of human emotions, from anger to sorrow to hope. Covering the entire back wall and standing with parts mixed to create a solid weave of sound, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus as prepared by guest conductor James Bagwell was our guide along that journey. The double fugue “Kyrie” felt like a demand rather than a plea for mercy, as tireless brass propelled the swirling vocal lines upward and into the blazing furor of the “Dies irae” with scarcely a breath in between. The repeated “Rex” that begins “Rex tremendae” came on like a powerful but gentle wave washing over the hall. “Lacrimosa” was slow and grief-hazed without dragging, as the violins slowly sighed. On multiple occasions, bass soloist Morris Robinson was observed mouthing the words along with the choir.
Robinson’s “Tuba mirum” was puissant, with his tremendous overtone-laced voice joining forces with a solo trombone. Ben Johnson’s tenor had a warm ring to it but was frequently subsumed under the orchestra. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford’s instrument was heady and bittersweet; her appearance in the Tanglewood season-concluding performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is much anticipated. Lucy Crowe’s limpid soprano was delicate without fragility, gleaming above the orchestral textures. On their own, each soloist was strong, and their quartets consistently sparkled, though the high and low end tended to dominate.
The later movements for chorus were not as electrifying, but this performance mostly sidestepped the second-half slump that many Mozart Requiems suffer as more material appears in the score by Franz Süssmayr, the student of Mozart who completed the work after his death. By the time the “Lux aeterna” — essentially a repetition of earlier material — rolled around, we had surely come full circle, captive as we have ever been in cycles of joy and anguish.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats Saturday). 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.