Music

Music Review

At Symphony Hall: Haydn’s drumrolls, Mahler’s pathos

Andris Nelsons leads the BSO in a program of Haydn and Mahler at Symphony Hall on Saturday night.
Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons leads the BSO in a program of Haydn and Mahler at Symphony Hall on Saturday night.

After a splashy Bernsteinian Friday-night gala concert, complete with “Turkey Trots” and feather boas, Saturday night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, the first of its subscriptions season, had a more sober, back-to-school feel about it — at least on paper. On the bill were symphonies by Haydn and Mahler. Full stop. 

But in its execution, with the BSO still sounding freshly rested from its post-Tanglewood break, the concert had a flair all its own, opening with Daniel Bauch’s rousing kettledrum fusillade — the one that earned Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 its nickname “Drumroll” — and ending with a richly involving and deftly paced performance of Mahler’s First Symphony. Music director Andris Nelsons was on the podium, beginning his fourth season with the orchestra.

And while Haydn and Mahler may at first blush seem like a ho-hum pairing, a product of the old-fashioned grab-bag school of program building, the two composers kept a kind of thoughtful company on Saturday night, representing as they do the dominant bookends of the grand Austro-German symphonic tradition. Haydn of course brought the symphony to its first great apotheosis and Mahler, 100 years later, sailed into the violent seas of the 20th century.

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Nelsons’s opening account of Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony had buoyancy and grace in equal measure, especially in the inner movements, where he pointed up the conversational subtleties without letting tempos sag. And the orchestra dispatched the finale with all the verve and effervescence this music requires.   

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Yet it was Mahler’s First Symphony that left the more lasting impression. The work opens with a single pianissimo A stretched over many octaves, and Nelsons brought the orchestra in so quietly it was as if the note had always been there as a kind of background hum, suggesting the natural world not as it sounds but as it is. From that opening onward, Nelsons managed to confer every phrase with a sense of vivid characterization without allowing the details to skew one’s perception of the structure of the whole. 

Highlights of the Mahler included the second movement’s Trio, which Nelsons shaped with remarkably supple rubato phrasing; the third movement’s funeral march, set in motion with Edwin Barker’s stately bass solo, and its G-major “Wayfarer” interlude, offered up with a surpassing tenderness that carried the entire movement onto a different plane. The finale with the BSO’s unseated horns duly raised the roof of Symphony Hall.

At the start of his fourth season, Nelsons and the BSO are sounding as mutually in tune as ever. Next up is a Beethoven and Shostakovich that those open to this music will not want to miss.   

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Andris Nelsons, conductor

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At Symphony Hall, Sept. 23 (repeats Sept. 26)

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com or follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy_Eichler