Sunday afternoon’s performance at Tanglewood ended a weekend of bombast and celebration on a rewarding note with Andris Nelsons leading both BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the BSO in Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 (op. 73). The short concert (lasting less than two hours with a substantial intermission), served as a friendly palate-cleanser to the previous evening’s events (reviewed by Andrew Sammut of BMInt here). Although it’s unfair to call Sunday afternoon’s programming unchallenging — there is much to listen for in both works —- it is nevertheless useful to note that the works are hardly new for either the BSO or the TFC. Symphony of Psalms was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky in 1930 for the BSO’s 50th celebration; although the ailing conductor missed the world premiere of the work, he allowed it occur under Ernest Ansermet in Brussels and subsequently led the BSO premiere with the Cecilia Society prepared by Arthur Fiedler. Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 is a work that most, if not all, of us Romantic-period enthusiasts have been living with for the majority of our infatuated years.
But then, enter Andris Nelsons. This weekend marked his debut at Tanglewood, but not with the BSO, he having substituted for James Levine in March 2011 at Symphony Hall; and Nelsons will return this coming year in the BSO’s subscription series. Certainly, these engagements, reportedly as he is being considered for the position of next music director of the BSO, are well founded: at 33, he is able to coax an extraordinary precision from both orchestra and chorus, imbuing performances with an uncanny emotional read of the scores.
This approach seemed wonderfully bewildering in Stravinsky’s Symphony, in which the composer somehow eschews (in his own words:) “lyrico-sentimental ‘feelings’” for a very personal read of the text, Psalm 150. The result is monumental, a work that changes from solemnity to rage and back again on the turn of a dime and explores a vast range of emotion while simultaneously remaining divorced from the text. Nelsons’s unwavering attention to detail proved particularly useful in separating Stravinsky’s score from the temptation to over-interpret or infuse it with unnecessary meaning. In Nelsons’s hand, an adroit, almost mechanical first movement melted into the beautiful double fugue that consumes the majority of the second movement. Although TFC initially seemed somewhat uneven earlier in the work, members of the chorus coalesced nicely in the later movements, presenting a particularly unified vision of the extended (and difficult) final movement. This proved a remarkable collaboration between ensemble and chorus that negotiated punctuated faster motives between the dirge-like laudate refrains and emphasized the menagerie of compositional techniques and styles that are employed in this particularly complex tone world. Ironically, all the work and attention to detail ultimately culminated in a read that was magnificently separate from sentiment, presenting the towering work in a light that is both exalted yet deeply internalized and — by that virtue — moving.
Whereas Stravinsky appeared free of sentimentality, Brahms’s second symphony was overwhelmingly emotional. Not without reason, the second symphony is often compared to Beethoven’s Pastoral. The Brahms is gleaming, outwardly jovial and optimistic, at times even employing rustic motives in and pastoral dance-like gestures. Early in the work, in the first movement, we hear echoes of alte Wien, noble Straussian waltzes heralded by the rich timbres of the string section, extolled by gallant horns. The second movement recalls calm pastures that turn into frolicking shepherd songs in the third and fourth movements.
Yet the Brahms under Nelsons displayed more than simply pastoral glee on Sunday afternoon. Although, yes, there was optimism, the first two movements of the work seemed particularly tinged with melancholy. Dearly coaxed melodic lines (Nelsons spent more time leaning over the orchestral than standing vertically) told the nostalgic story of a long-past Vienna in the first movement, then a strident cello paean that opened the second movement seemed to set the tone for the developing variation that intimated a darker motive. But this internalized prelude introduced a progression from melancholy to optimism in the graceful third movement, and finally, a joyous (dare we say comedic?) culmination and response to the earlier portions of the work in the final movement.
Although consisting of familiar works, the afternoon ultimately proved a challenging one. The conductor and players had to negotiate the lack of sentimentality in the Symphony of Psalms, and then switch completely into the endless realms of meaning in Brahms’s Second Symphony. To ask one’s audience to experience and digest complex contrasts and juxtapositions of two such works in a single concert is to set expectations high. When performed with as much precision and emotional intelligence as it was on Sunday, a program as familiar as this one should present audiences a very new set of challenges. It did, and the audience hailed the performance with a genuine standing ovation.