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BSO: Sunshine in the Triple, Starlight in the Tenth

The Boston Musical Intelleigencer

Friday evening had been a Tanglewood washout. Not in the wet way one might expect in Lenox; rather, a night that should have glittered with luxurious early German Romanticism became sleepy and mired in Ken-David Masur’s sluggish tempi and prosaic gestures. Schubert’s ‘Tragic’ was, that night, only too much so, and not in the indulgent sense. Garrick Ohlsson played the ‘Emperor’ deliciously, but with restraint; on our blanket, there was a consensus of commiseration and the feeling he was a rose amongst thorns. So, before Saturday’s performance, all enthusiasm was in abeyance. We should have known that Andris Nelsons (our hero!) would never let us down, but we settled into our slatted seats limply and with modest expectation. We now see that Friday had been a preparation, as it set Nelsons’ verve in sharp relief, and left us empty to have our spirits fully replenished; Nelsons brought to Saturday’s program of Beethoven and Shostakovich the starlight sparkle that had been conspicuously absent on Friday.

The Beethoven Triple Concerto in C Major is notable for its wit, invention and novelty of texture; to contextualize it in 1804 only emphasizes its cleverness and avant garde creativity—chamber groups with ripieno were, of course, a staple of the Baroque, but much less typical in the early days of the 19th-century concerto. Beethoven’s cello and violin parts are extremely virtuosic and originally designed for the excellent court players Seidler and Kraft, while the piano part was conceived for Archduke Rudolph of Austria, an enthusiastic and competent amateur, and Beethoven’s pupil patron; it was “celebrity” vanity performance at its courtly best, and it seemed as if Thibaudet and the Brothers Capuçon had been type-cast for their according glamor. In this piece, Beethoven treats larger-than-life themes with his characteristic simplicity and strength, never a note without reason; the muscular virtuosity of the performance and the manly good humor of the trio’s interplay and cerebral interpretative playfulness elicited freshness from the score and delight from the audience.

Always polished, the orchestral playing seemed immeasurably more jovial than on the previous evening. Even when the audience is offered the flat of the Maestro’s back debonairly propped against the rostrum, Nelson’s smile still feels visible. His technique is enabling and encouraging, and he has the grace to place himself at the service of his soloists, making himself in turns inconspicuous and commandingly present as best served them. The pianissimos from the strings in the Beethoven were utterly gripping, with Nelsons seemingly diving forward into the violins, grabbing every intensity of sound and offering it to the listeners, with a gleefully childish little shake of his baton – utterly charming! The end of the first movement was memorable for a perfect accelerando built up from the rich earth of the cellos; the gesture had real grit, a welcome departure from the slick veneer of Friday!

The largo was exquisitely hushed, a true exhibition of Gautier’s lyricism and depth of tone; utterly tasteful and subtle slides made a compelling argument for their use in this repertoire. Thibaudet rendered his simple figurations in accompaniment of clarinet and orchestra with perhaps a little too much “artistry”, but one can easily overlook such luxurious problems. Nelsons hides his baton and conducts with his fingers for more intimacy, frequently flashing an ecstatic smile, leaning right back on the balustrade as he encourages the players to wash over him with sound.

The ensuing Rondo all Polacca tempers hearty ‘folksy’ sunshine with supreme artistry, reminiscent of Haydn’s similar deployments; with Nelsons at the podium, we had that rare impression of genuine naturalness. The BSO served a perfect canvas one which the soloists could paint with vibrant, vivid strokes; the solos exuded joy and a delight in facility; coordination with the orchestra was utterly exact, as if everyone was in on the fun. Nelsons threw his arms to the heavens at the mighty G7 chord! Thibaudet achieved a striking effect by leaving his short sharp final chords ringing faintly between the big orchestra chords; it seemed a bold, arresting move but the first edition is, surprisingly, marked ‘ped.’—the effect must have been much like Beethoven’s early pedal mechanism. Though thoroughly alive, there was a sense of informed performance practice about the reading. Yo Yo Ma, who was sitting a few rows ahead, looked very happy indeed, a most reassuring seal of Tanglewood success! Rapturous applause ensued: all who could stood, and the soloists returned to the stage a number of times, clearly delighting in their mutual success.

The account of the symphony was deeply moving, with compelling narrative pace, celebrating the score on its own terms. For many, enthusiasm for Shostakovich is not easy to gather; Robin Holloway in On Music, characterizes the string quartets disparagingly: “[It is] astonishing that this cycle is now routinely compared to Beethoven’s; like comparing a housing estate to the Acropolis.” Nelsons occupies this prefabricated breeze-block bungalow with love, as if he were truly at home—he occupies the space of his interpretation with conviction. You could see him reveling in the terse, awkward resolutions in the counterpoint; the gestural climaxes were genuinely exhilarating, paced with merciless restraint and intensity. A particular highlight was the compelling horror of the second movement. It was good to hear the BSO play at genuine full throttle, with chokingly thick insistence. The strings were impressively arrayed with utter precision and discipline, yet with almost maniacal urgency.

Read the rest of the review here