Andris Nelsons’s final program of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-17 season was imaginatively conceived, three somber works with playful undercurrents. A suite from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Incidental Music to Grigori Kozintsev’s 1941 theatrical production of “King Lear” was followed by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4, in G minor, and then, after intermission, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, in G major.
From Shostakovich’s 25-minute score, Nelsons omitted only the 10 “Fool’s Songs,” the first-act finale, and one of the five brief fanfares. As usual when he’s conducting Shostakovich, he made the composer’s points without bluster or brutality. The Introduction was big, rounded, and unsettling; the voice of “Cordelia’s Ballad,” which followed, was the pure tone and singing line of William R. Hudgins’s clarinet. The French horns were all rustic pomp in “Returning From the Hunt”; the trumpets gave a Mahlerian flavor to “The Military Camp.” There was a clear distinction between the natural majesty of “The Approach of the Storm” and the hollow glory of the closing “March.”
To say Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto is not as popular as his other three would be an understatement: The BSO didn’t program it till 2002, and Nelsons’s soloist, Leif Ove Andsnes, is only the third pianist to do it with the orchestra. At 25 minutes, the piece is compact, and in its most famous recording, by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli back in 1957, it’s subtle, sophisticated, and as severe as the composer’s haircut.
Andsnes opened it up with a reading that was less Russian Orthodox Church than Michelangeli’s, more like Russian spring. He could have had more thrust and weight, but there was a nice elasticity to his phrasing, and he underlined the Largo’s hints of blues and jazz, as well as its disquieting reference to “Three Blind Mice.” Nelsons was a vivid accompanist, though sometimes the wind and brass interjections seemed overstated.
Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is more than half in love with easeful death. The first movement is a children’s sleigh ride that’s interrupted by a panic attack and a menacing trumpet fanfare before the gaiety resumes. Death, in the form of a scordatura violin, gambols through the scherzo; you can’t really tell whether he’s there for business or pleasure. In the Poco Adagio third movement, the child seems to have fallen asleep, with good dreams and bad; then the gates of Heaven open. The finale is one of Mahler’s “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” songs, “Das himmlische Leben” (“Life in Heaven”), and it’s a hungry child’s vision of Heaven in which rabbits and deer plop themselves onto the roasting spit and fish jump into your net.
High jinks abound. Right off the bat, at bar 3 of the first movement, Mahler mimics a rehearsal blooper by having the flutes and sleigh bells go forward while the violins and clarinets hold back, and when it’s time for the recapitulation, the winds come in five bars early, like a child who can’t wait. In the finale, the ox keeps lowing even after St. Luke has slaughtered it.
Nelsons was in his element here, tender and loving, expansive at 60 minutes but never sluggish. This was a lusty, cheeky Fourth with whooping winds and brass. When in the first movement the cellos enter with their lush theme, Nelsons shifted emotional gears without appreciably changing tempo, and that kind of thoughtful paragraphing was evident throughout. He made the Poco Adagio, at a daringly slow tempo, a kind of lullaby; the last nightmare was dispelled with a comforting waltz.
Playing the scordatura (tuned up one step) violin in the scherzo, concertmaster Malcolm Lowe was more sinister than scary. The soprano soloist in the finale, Kristine Opolais, was not really childlike, but she wasn’t over-operatic, either, and she made good eye contact with the audience, scarcely looking at her score. She didn’t always project in her lower register, and there were times when Nelsons (who is her husband) overwhelmed her. But up top, in “Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu!” and the subsequent refrains, she was celestial.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats May 5-6). Tickets $31-$145. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.