United States Tanglewood  – Mozart, Mahler: Emmanuel Ax (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, MA, 5.7.2019. (RP)
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat major K.482
Mahler – Symphony No.5
This was opening night for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2019 Tanglewood season. In addition to a capacity crowd in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, the spacious lawn was overflowing with people. Prime spots were gone long before the concert began, many delineated by twinkling lights. Lone listeners for whom the music was the sole draw were nestled between the elaborate picnic spreads. Happiness and anticipation abounded.
The first work on the program was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.22 with Emmanuel Ax. The piano concerto was the most personal of the genres in which Mozart worked, perfectly summarized by one writer as the arias that he wrote for himself to sing and the symphonies that he composed for himself to play. Piano concertos were his musical calling card in Vienna. The first three Viennese ones date from 1782, the year in which he escaped the bonds of servitude in Salzburg for the freedom of Vienna. Piano Concerto No.22 followed three years later, composed while he was simultaneously working on Le nozze di Figaro.
Although the first movement has attention-grabbing trumpet fanfares and drum rolls, the concerto has an overall air of intimacy. With a look of warm approval on his face, Ax sat facing the orchestra as the quicksilver melodies darted between horns, bassoons, clarinets (this is the first Mozart piano concerto in which they are heard) and strings. Ax then turned to the piano and began playing with the lightest of touches, at one with the fine texture that Nelsons had crafted. Ax performed with ease and grace throughout, as did the orchestra in a remarkably nuanced performance of one of Mozart’s most elegant works.
At its premiere, the audience demanded an encore of the second movement whose principal theme is developed in a string of variations, the most elaborate of which is reserved for the piano. It is one of the most beautiful arias that Mozart composed for himself to play, and Ax spun it into musical bliss. In the final measures of the third movement, Mozart worked in the briefest of musical jokes, which Ax dispatched with a smile and a slight nod of his head.
With the blare of the trumpet, Nelson and the BSO launched into a revelatory, spell-binding performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. For all its grandeur, the symphony’s soul is revealed for me in the Adagietto, the ethereal love song scored for strings and harp that he wrote for his wife, Alma. The strings were transcendent, with the harp seamlessly inserting itself into their transparent, shimmering waves of sound. I didn’t time it, so I don’t have a sense of whether Nelson took it fast or slow (the proper tempo being a subject of much debate), but it was over in a flash.
The trumpets and percussion dazzled with their brilliance and swagger, while the horn playing was stunning. Each of the solo horn calls seemed to pose a question, adding an air of mystery to the complex panoply of emotions that course through the work. In the Scherzo, the clarinets and cellos engaged in a dialogue notable for its simplicity and gorgeous sonorities. Even at its most raucous, Nelsons imparted an air of sophistication to the score. He paced the finale expertly, a slow build-up to a tremendous release of sound and energy that brought the cheering audience to its feet.
I long eschewed outdoor music festivals, but I’ve been bitten by the Tanglewood bug – especially for Mahler. Although the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts don’t look a bit like the Wörthersee in the south of Austria where Mahler composed his Fifth Symphony, they share a certain spaciousness. The stray bird flying over the orchestra, insects buzzing about the lights and a soothing breeze on a hot July evening impart a connection to nature that is truly magical. I’ve never thought of Mahler’s symphonies as being constrained by a concert hall, but at Tanglewood the music seems to resound off the mountains and soar straight up into the starry skies.
For more information on the 2019 Tanglewood season, click here.