In a program with variation form as a unifying thread, Andris Nelsons and the BSO started the new year with grand music-making. French cellist Gautier Capuçon starred as Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, with BSO principal viola Steven Ansell as his Sancho Panza; works of Brahms and Haydn were also essayed.
Based on a theme probably composed by Haydn’s student Ignaz Pleyel, Brahms’s Haydn Variations could be used as an instruction manual in techniques of orchestration. This was Brahms’s last major orchestral work published before his first symphony and he seems to have used the appealing Chorale St. Antoni theme followed by eight variations and a concluding passacaglia to develop and test his skill at orchestral writing.
Nelsons began with a soft and dignified statement of the chorale theme, played as a nearly dance-like processional. In all of the variations, the performance was distinguished by the way that it brought out the shifting rhythmic patterns. The first variation assertively heralded a new orchestral world, the bold bass line and sweeping strings declaring Brahms’s newfound confidence in his creative mastery. Dance-like rhythms and colors dominated the next three variations, the più vivace variation playing with tzigane rhythms, the con moto variation flowing and pastoral. The ensuing andante was pensive, tinged with sadness and a swelling of emotion, Nelsons carefully controlling the orchestral balance. The vivace variation, scurrying and adventurous in rhythm, prefigured the final variation in its subtle orchestral textures. The “hunting” variation, here played march-like rather than cacciatore, emphasized the rhythmic impact of orchestral unity, and was followed by a balletic grazioso, emphasizing coordination as a solution to complexity. The last variation, presto but gratifyingly non troppo, was mysterious, expectant, radiating like after-ripples from the Creation. Nelsons put his hands at his sides for this one and let the ripples spread enigmatically, at their own rhythm, before leading the orchestra to a noble passacaglia. Nelsons’s gestures emphasized a gathering power, an expanding grandeur, revealing islands of delicate and intimate beauty, the chorale theme emerging irresistibly and affirmatively.
In 1788, after writing the six Paris symphonies Haydn was commissioned by Comte d’Ogny to compose a further set of three symphonies for the Orchestra of the Masonic Lodge in Paris (disbanded in 1789). Symphony No. 90 in C Major, best-known for having a false ending in the last movement, invariably causes premature applause followed by embarrassed laughter, as Haydn intended. Nelsons described this work as “a pearl of Art” and “theatrical, in a good way.” Indeed, he carefully shaped the slow introduction to give it a distinctively understated drama, with wistful strings, allowing it to mushroom into a festive, energetic main theme crowned by the haunting flute of Elizabeth Ostling, who provided a beautiful freshness tinged with irony.
The double-variation andante formed the heart of this symphony, the two themes alternately gentle and vulnerable, then austere and implacable. Nelsons gave it room to become serious, Time asserting itself, with Ostling’s flute providing bittersweet irony and an elegant and enigmatic distancing. The menuetto was played as a lebenstanz, the horns adding grandeur but also taking on the voice of irony, all implying that compromise and aging are the only pathways to wisdom. The finale was played with high spirits and a mock heroic stance, Nelsons bringing out a festive cacophony. At the false ending, Nelsons turned to the audience Victor Borge-like as if finished, then pretended to glance down at the score and notice more music left to play. Most noticeable about this performance was the delight Nelsons takes in conducting this orchestra. It is as if the BSO musicians collectively are his new instrument and he is playing them.
Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 39, tells the story of the mad knight in a lengthy introduction, 10 “fantastical” variations describing episodes from his quest, and Quixote’s death in the Finale. Strauss originally specified that the Don and Sancho Panza were to be performed by the principle cello and viola, but the cello part is so magnificent that it was quickly taken over by guest soloists, and Strauss himself conducted it this way in later years. Under Nelsons’ nuanced interpretation, Gautier Capuçon played at times with great slashing attack, then with tender emotion, masterfully evoking the complexity of the deranged Don whose imaginary world seemed preferable to what we call reality. Steven Ansell was the perfect foil, trying to keep the grand adventure grounded, attempting to bring the chaotic realm of imagination back to earth. This was essentially a psychological reading of the work, a self-portrait of Strauss himself, evoking the seductive freedom of the creative artist’s world and the fatal result of subjecting it to ordinary necessity.
The introduction led us almost imperceptibly into disconnected madness, with swirling strings, ominous brass and sudden stabs of hallucination and imagined glory. Capuçon rendered the Quixote theme simply, not overly dramatic, but with tender sympathy, Ansell’s countering statement anxiously sane. The variation-episodes ranged from boldly lunatic, to cacophonous – those wonderful sheep in the horns—to dreamily idealistic in the cello, followed by soaring and sublime. Nelsons exploited the various onomatopoeia of the score with maximum effect. He also shaped the sound as though he had read Paul Bekker’s remark that “Strauss feels and thinks in instrumental colors.” The knight’s vigil was an anguished monologue from the cello, followed by the comic relief of the Dulcinea meeting. A reply to Wagner, and a rebuke, seemed to be implicit in the satire of the wind machine in the next variation: who is the more genuine hero, Siegfried or the Don? Sancho Panza’s attempt to bring the Don back to reality in the final variation, played with great pounding timpani and sweeping strings, led directly to the final cello solo, a sweet, sad farewell. As though supplementing onomatopoeia with bodily gesture, Capuçon let his head fall on his chest, stricken. Transfiguration and Death: evoking, but reversing, with self-deprecating irony, the gesture of the earlier tone poem, Death and Transfiguration.