Old-world Glory from Boston

By Sedgwick Clark

When Richard Strauss conducted the Boston Symphony in 1904, he stopped the players during a rehearsal and said, “Gentlemen, when you play my music I hear all the notes. But I don’t want to hear all the notes.” My guess is that he would have loved to hear Andris Nelsons conduct his Ein Heldenleben last week at Carnegie Hall. Leading the BSO in his first New York appearances since becoming the orchestra’s music director at the beginning of this season, the 37-year-old Latvian maestro conjured a glorious wall of sound in which the mass was never distracted by extraneous details.

My last critical encounter with Nelsons was his Carnegie Hall concert performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome with the Vienna State Opera a year ago (3/16/14), of which I wrote that he made the composer “sound like an amateur orchestrator.” Moreover, “he is impossible to watch . . . describing every little detail in the air to players far more acquainted with the music than he.” I concluded that at a subsequent Vienna Philharmonic concert his “tired reading of Brahms’s Haydn Variations and a sprawling Third Symphony were not encouraging.”

But Nelsons’s three concerts with the Boston Symphony couldn’t have been more encouraging. In Ein Heldenleben, the Bostonians seemed to have recaptured that plush, old-world sonority of the best Koussevitzky recordings. No Boulezian clarity and detail for this guy: Nelsons’s expressive rubato, bass-oriented textures, and broad tempos (except in his uncommonly brisk, snarling treatment of The Hero’s Adversaries) reminded me of Christian Thielemann’s expansive performance with the New York Philharmonic in March 1997. The offstage brass in the Battle scene, so often too close at Carnegie, were perfectly judged.

I was unable to hear the second concert, in which Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was the centerpiece. Friends reported an extraordinary performance, and the Times’s Anthony Tomassini wrote that this concert was the best of the trio.

The final concert featured a driving, energetic Mahler Sixth Symphony in the Bernstein mode, which only flagged somewhat in the second-movement Scherzo’s trios.

Expecting to be distracted by Nelsons’s overconducting, as the year before, I came armed with the Strauss and Mahler scores. To my surprise, I found that he has tempered his flailing beat, and I could safely steal a momentary glance at the stage—a sign that trust has built up in Boston’s Symphony Hall!

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

4/24 at 7:30. The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America. 1161 Amsterdam Avenue. The Serge Prokofiev Foundation honors the opening of the Prokofiev Archive at Columbia University. Sergei Dreznin, piano; Barbara Nissman, piano; Erika Baikoff, soprano. Prokofiev: Sonata No. 1; The Ugly Duckling; Tales of the Old Grandmother; Sonata No. 6. Pre-concert lecture by Simon Morrison at 6:30.

4/27 Symphony Space at 7:30. Cutting Edge Concerts. Victoria Bond: Clara.

4/28 Carnegie Hall. New World Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas; Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin. Schubert: Incidental Music from Rosamunde. Berg: Violin Concerto. Norbert Moret: En rêve. Debussy: La Mer.

5/29 Carnegie Hall. Audra MacDonald.

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