At Carnegie Hall, Nelsons Heralds a New Era for Boston

United StatesUnited States  Shostakovich, Beethoven, and Mahler: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 16/17.4.2015 (BH)

16 April

Shostakovich: Passacaglia from Act II of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Op. 29 (1931-1932)
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 (1806)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93 (1953)

17 April

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor (1903-1904; rev. 1906)

As the 15th Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons is already making news in his first season. (Privately, I grin when European friends mock-warn, “You guys [Americans] better treat him right!” with hints of abduction if he is under-appreciated.) The orchestra recently signed a contract with Deutsche Grammophon to record five albums of Shostakovich: first, the Tenth Symphony and the Passacaglia from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and then symphonies 5 through 9, plus incidental music from Hamlet and King Lear.

In the second of three concerts at Carnegie Hall, Nelsons and the Boston forces gave a tantalizing glimpse of the first recording (to be released this summer), with a searing reading of the Passacaglia, and a sepulchral account of the symphony. (Coincidentally, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic did the Tenth a week earlier—scorching the walls of Avery Fisher Hall.) Nelsons made every measure count, punctuating the composer’s arc with extreme dynamic contrasts, and disguising those sequences when the composer’s fervent inspiration seems to lag—if only a little, by his own high standards. If the rhythmic precision in the savage second movement wasn’t as taut as with Gilbert, Nelsons more than compensated with translucence and dread. The “DSCH” motto in the third movement—a snarling waltz—was adorned with pungent English horn (Robert Sheena) and piccolo (Cynthia Meyers) leading the orchestra’s eloquent winds into the spotlights of the concluding allegro.

In Shostakovich’s turbulent Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the shattering Act II Passacaglia comes dead-center, immediately after the title character has murdered her father-in-law. I have never heard it used as a concert opener and it made a sensational one, with Nelsons and the enormous ensemble capturing the scene’s primal grimace.

But who could have predicted that Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff would steal the show; the violinist’s intense—and courageously quiet—performance was one I will recall for years. Beginning with a touch of reticence, Tetzlaff offered uncommon fluidity and control, plus seductive tone and intonation, graced with dramatic pianissimos. His riveting cadenzas seemed like tiny concertos on their own. Nelsons and the orchestra tracked him like hunters, commensurately reducing their voices to a hush—sober, even bordering on morose now and then. In the joyous, unfettered finale, each time the violinist returned with the theme it was subtly retailored, never the same, and his sequences with the high violins had the intimacy of a music box. The audience, realizing something uncommon was afoot, responded with five ovations. Returning to the stage and looking grateful but slightly spent, the violinist offered a soupçon of Bach, with the same keen attention—and uncannily true intonation—that made the Beethoven so indelible.

For the final night Nelsons and his crew offered a brilliantly detailed Mahler Sixth Symphony, which made its impact despite—or because of—some oddly animated podium antics. How conductors work their magic is sometimes mysterious. When Pierre Boulez lifts a single finger, the orchestra can explode. Franz Welser-Möst cuts a businesslike profile, yet his concert Wozzeck a few seasons ago almost made me weep. Based on this pair of concerts (and I missed the first one), Nelsons is willing to adopt most any posture, from crouching down as if stalking prey, to standing primly—feet lashed together—eliciting metronomic rhythmic accuracy from the ensemble, such as the outstanding volleys from Thomas Rolfs, principal trumpet. In the touching Andante, Nelsons began with a baton that somehow disappeared later, as he patiently gave the players space to reveal Mahler’s riches. Of the many gleaming soloists, concertmaster Malcom Lowe expertly ushered in the violins at the close.

In the finale, more hallucinatory than usual, the two harps created timbres that resembled a cimbalom, the tangy dulcimer-like instrument often favored by György Kurtág. In climactic sequences I often realized I was holding my breath, then exhaling as Nelsons broke the tension. At times his choreography was just a bit distracting (others felt differently), but there was no denying the sense of gripping theater onstage. Coupled with the hardworking orchestra, Nelsons indicated decisively that Boston’s magnificent instrument is embarking on a bold and tingling new era.

Bruce Hodges

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