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January 9, 2015

Nelsons Returns to the BSO

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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.

Gautier-Capucon,-Steven-Ansell,-and-Andris-Nelsons(Michael-Blanchard)

Gautier Capucon, Steven Ansell,& Andris Nelsons (Michael Blanchard photo)

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.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

8 Comments

  1. This is one of the most objective, informative, musical and passionate reviews I have ever come across. That Haydn Symphony 90 was positively sparkling – Mozart would have smiled:)) Nelsons is a gift to music, to musicians and to us all.

    Comment by Michael Chen — January 11, 2015 at 7:13 am

  2. I can only agree whole-heartedly with Michael Chen’s comment about this review. The concert was absolutely wonderful (and brave program building; this was not standard fare, but the BSO audience got it; the extended standing ovation after the quiet ending of the Strauss made me think that perhaps there is hope for the human race after all). Nelsons is indeed a treasure; we are very fortunate to have him in Boston.

    I will also admit to having fallen for Haydn’s joke. I had never heard this symphony before and I am thankful to Maestro Nelsons for programming it. It’s a great work and should not be as neglected as it apparently is.

    Comment by Don Allen — January 11, 2015 at 12:26 pm

  3. If Brahms, Haydn, Strauss constitutes “brave programming” I’m not sure how much hope we have.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — January 11, 2015 at 7:29 pm

  4. The programming was about as brave as the standing ovation was unusual. Though I think it was one of those standing-and-leaving ovations; a suspicious number of people were applauding in their coats.

    Comment by SamW — January 11, 2015 at 10:12 pm

  5. I wasn’t there for any of it, so I can’t say that the standing O was undeserved, but it seems to me that we’ve been seeing a lot of celebrity hype from the BSO for Maestro Nelsons. It makes sense from a marketing standpoint, but it also means that people can be led to think, “He’s a celebrity, so this must be great.” So, in addition to the “grade inflation” which has led to the proliferation of standing ovations — as if applauding itself were not a sign of real approval — we now have the celebrity cult reinforcing them.

    Well, I’m sorry other commitments prevented me from attending last Thursday. I’m confident I’d have enjoyed the concert, even with Brahms and Strauss in it. The pieces selected are among their enjoyable ones.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 12, 2015 at 7:19 pm

  6. In reference to SamW’s comment: The witty Sir Neville Marriner coined a term that describes the behavior cited. It’s a “standing evacuation.”

    Comment by Brian Bell — January 14, 2015 at 7:07 pm

  7. For what it’s worth, there were many young people in the audience where I was sitting. They were in no hurry to leave. To them it was all discovery. Neither Brahms, nor Haydn, nor Strauss, was “old hat.” They had not yet “been there” and “done that.” It was subtly very encouraging to see their enthusiasm. (I thought, “There’s hope for Goethe, Stendhal, Flaubert…”)

    Comment by Ashley — January 15, 2015 at 7:40 am

  8. I was there for Saturday’s performance. These pieces may be considered to be “old hat,” but I felt that Nelsons knew what he wanted and got it. One may not like all of his choices–he does some things I don’t love–but it’s hard to be bored. I don’t know the Don Quixote well, and really enjoyed listening while reading Ledbetter’s excellent program notes. And some of the standing was an ovation, while others were leaving. But the piece (Don Quixote) doesn’t end on a rousing note that invites enthusiastic applause, so to see anyone standing is a tribute.

    Comment by Julian Lander — January 16, 2015 at 9:18 pm

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