Andris Nelsons Inaugurates a New Era with the Boston Symphony Orchestra

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Mozart, Brahms: Paul Lewis (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Boston, 12.10.2013 (DA)

Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.25 in C Major, K.503
Symphony No.3 in F Major, Op.90

Finally, he’s here. Andris Nelsons is not quite the Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (he’s still the ‘Designate’), but he’s almost there. After cancelling events at Tanglewood over the summer, this was Nelsons’s first concert since the announcement that he would take over the mess left by James Levine’s departure. Just as Levine seems to receive standing ovations whenever he enters a hall in New York, so too was Nelsons rewarded with one here before a note was played. Nelsons is a modest man, shy, even, for a conductor so charismatic when extracting notes from orchestras, so much so that concertmaster Malcolm Lowe almost had to insist that he take the applause for longer. And then, with all the interviews and the pitches at Red Sox games out of the way, to business.

And what business. Nelsons is that rare young conductor to have made his reputation in the canon, rather than awaiting it, and how that showed in a programme centred on Mozart and Brahms. But it was with Wagner, and that storied Hans Neuenfels Lohengrin at Bayreuth, that Nelsons really announced his promise, and it was with Wagner that he began here. The Siegfried Idyll, a tone poem of blissful domestic repose, of birth and of love, seemed a courageous choice. It requires a command of architecture that escapes conductors twice Nelsons’s age, as well as a freedom of tempo and emotion that must never become too impulsive. A balance must also be found between the private side of Wagner’s adoration of his wife, for whom the piece was written and first performed, and the insistently public, mythical themes of Siegfried and Brünnhilde that Wagner uses to express it. Yet Nelsons judged this beautifully, with tempi that dared to linger but that never dragged. Hints of swagger to Siegfried’s themes reminded that tranquility emerged from inquietude for hero and composer alike. Balances were impeccable, enabling the BSO’s solo woodwinds to communicate musically even through the thicker textures of this arrangement for full strings, and those strings, too, seemed to have a darker, more Germanic tinge to their sound than one would often hear.

A smaller orchestra was employed for the most symphonic of Mozart’s late piano concertos, and at times one wondered whether it was simply too small for a hall of this size. The payoff, however, came again in the spotlight accorded to the woodwind, so crucial to Mozart’s music. They took their cue, too, whether in the tight canonic counterpoint of the first movement, or in the slight militarism of their outbursts in the second. On this evidence, Nelsons is well placed to chart a course between the benevolent wisdom that conductors twice his age find in this music and the unbearably crude tactics foisted upon Mozart in recent decades. This was poised and sprightly, but above all it showed how energetic attention to internal detailing can benefit the whole. Paul Lewis proved equally intriguing a Mozart pianist, although he seemed more interventionist in ambition than Nelsons. K.503 is a concerto that looks forward to Beethoven, eschewing to some degree the more aria-like tone of earlier works, and that was the approach that Lewis seemed to take. He found infinite variations in the phrasing of the refrains in the finale, and layered the piece with a cumulative power. An insistent left hand suggested a darker side to Mozart’s unprepared shifts between major and minor, but in this unforgiving acoustic Lewis tended to be slightly leaden, even surprisingly imprecise in his passagework. Still, the character was spot on, and Alfred Brendel’s cadenza to the first movement, especially in hands as witty as these, was a welcome treat.

Brahms’s third symphony is by far his most challenging to bring off, posing rhythmic and phrasing difficulties even beyond the need to illustrate thematic unity over its four movements. Nelsons, however, achieved something quite extraordinary here. He possesses a remarkable ability to vary tempi over huge long lines with daring bravery, and without it seeming exaggerated or forced – a talent that Brahms himself had, and wanted applied to his symphonies. So too was Nelsons able to maintain momentum even at the slowest and quietest of moments, which in the first movement in particular enabled explosive turns to more vigorous development. Take the spectacular rise of confidence at the exposition repeat, so brilliantly done that it felt like it was what we had been waiting for all along, or the first theme’s near – and only near – collapse before the recapitulation. The pair of slow movements wound their way with purpose, and although this music contains some of Brahms’s most devastating confessions of surpassing loneliness, Nelsons never allowed them to dominate the mood. For the finale, he unleashed a roar that felt unsettled and yet strong, in other words characteristically Brahmsian. Rage was constrained and yet tension rose to levels more readily associated with Brahms’s final symphony – even with Mahler – than this enigma. By the coda, the music simply had nothing left to give: spent, it returned to its beginnings, not wistfully, but not entirely content.

The BSO have acquired perhaps the most talented young conductor in the world: they know it, and they played like they know it here. There were enough slips in the Mozart and Brahms that Nelsons surely knows how much work he will have to do to restore this orchestra to its rightful place, both technically and in the pantheon of great American orchestras. Given time, he will.

David Allen