This week’s program from Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra might appear random: Mozart’s Symphony No. 23; German clarinetist-composer Jörg Widmann’s “Partita (Five Reminiscences for Orchestra)”; and Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote,” with superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But the sinuous oboe solos from Mozart’s Andantino grazioso look forward to Dulcinea’s initial oboe theme in “Don Quixote.” And not only did the Strauss and Widmann pieces both premiere on March 8 (“Don Quixote” in 1898, “Partita” just three weeks ago), they play off each other in their meditations on man and music.
Mozart was a mere 17 when he completed Symphony No. 23, in 1773. Conceived for a small orchestra (two oboes, two French horns, two trumpets, and strings) playing in a music room rather than a concert hall, the three movements flash by in 10 minutes, without pause. Thursday’s performance was the first the BSO has given in Symphony Hall. Nelsons’s outer movements were direct and brilliant, though the trumpets had occasional difficulty cutting through the 38 strings; Keisuke Wakao was plangent in the oboe solos.
Commissioned jointly by the BSO and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which Nelsons also directs, “Partita” had its world premiere in Leipzig; Thursday marked the 40-minute work’s US premiere. It’s a gloss on a Baroque dance suite, with movements marked Grave — Gigue, Andante, Divertimento, Sarabande, and Chaconne. There’s not a lot of danceable music, however — for the most part, the piece is as somber as Widmann’s “Trauermarsch,” which Nelsons, pianist Yefim Bronfman, and the BSO performed in October 2016.
The Grave — Gigue is very grave (with Wagner tuba nods to “Tannhäuser” and “Parsifal”); the gigue hardly gets going. In the siciliana-like Andante, the pastoral English horn is overtaken by screaming strings; the Divertimento is a demented, fun-house ländler that alludes to Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite and Mahler’s Second Symphony; the Sarabande pushes the bassoon to the spooky limit of its upper register. The concluding Chaconne is built on a rising 11-note scale; the tension also keeps rising, to a massive climax that may or may not be a triumph.
Nelsons treated the piece as a five-movement symphony, keeping it under tight control and maintaining clarity even in the densest passages while underlining Widmann’s sly wit. He had superb support from his solo winds: Clint Foreman (alto flute), Robert Sheena (English horn), Alcides Rodriguez (bass clarinet), Craig Nordstrom (contra bass clarinet), and Richard Svoboda (bassoon).
“Don Quixote” is Strauss’s affectionate look at Cervantes’s would-be knight errant, a 45-minute tone poem in which our hero dreams of his beloved Dulcinea, converses with his trusty squire, Sancho Panza, and battles windmills, flocks of sheep, a religious procession, two monks, and the Knight of the White Moon. Don Quixote is represented as a solo cello (spelled by solo violin), Sancho Panza as a solo viola (with help from bass clarinet and tenor tuba).
Strauss can easily turn blurry and blowsy; Nelsons’s reading was crisp, restrained, sharp-edged but never ugly, warm and lush where the score warranted, vivid in the bleating of sheep (the brass and clarinets flutter-tonguing), the illusory “ride in the air” (complete with wind machine), and the ill-fated boat trip. Ma didn’t always stand out against the orchestra, but he conveyed the humor of Don Quixote’s very errant delusions, he made the vigil of Variation V a dark night of the soul, and his finale was heartbreaking in its resignation and regret. BSO principal violist Steven Ansell gave Sancho Panza a sweet humanity; there were also characterful contributions from Nordstrom on bass clarinet, Mike Roylance on tenor tuba, and first associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova on solo violin.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Thursday March 29. Repeats March 30-31, April 3. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org