in: Reviews

August 16, 2015

Nelsons Leads Mendelssohn & Mahler


Christian Tetzlaff and Andris Nelsons (Hilary Scott photo)

Christian Tetzlaff and Andris Nelsons (Hilary Scott photo)

Friday night’s evening shed concert at Tanglewood contrasted the extremes of Germanic Romanticism: Mendelssohn’s sparkling, capricious Violin Concerto in E Minor with Mahler’s brooding, kaleidoscopic Symphony No. 6. In March and April, Andris Nelsons first led the BSO in Mahler’s sixth in Symphony Hall and in Carnegie Hall [click here for BMInt review].

The orchestra is about to embark on an eight-city tour of European festivals, featuring the sixth at the BBC Proms in Royal Albert Hall (August 22nd), at the Salzburg and Grafenegg Festivals in Austria (August 24th and 27th), in Milan’s Teatro alla Scala (September 1st), and at the Berlin Philharmonie (September 5th).

On a rainy Friday night, the large picnicking crowd migrated into the back of the Shed as the Mendelssohn began. The shed audience ranged from regular subscribers wearing t-shirts emblazoned with Mahler’s face to contemporary modernist composers such as NYU’s Paul Chihara, in town for the August 16th premiere of his TMC-commissioned fanfare Wild Wood.

Ben Wright, an alum of the Tanglewood Music Center and the BSO’s Second Trumpet, introduced the concert with a series of vignettes from his time as a student working under the legendary BSO Principal Trumpet Roger Voisin, and compared the orchestra’s love of Charles Munch (its conductor from 1949 to 1962) during Voisin’s heyday to its current, enthusiastic relationship with Andris Nelsons.

Wearing a white jacket for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Nelsons combined an audacious, blistering tempo with incredible delicacy. Soloist Christian Tetzlaff displayed virtuosity through subtlety, both in his pianissimo playing (scarcely audible from the tenth row) and in his sensitivity to Nelsons’s well-shaped phrases and frequent use of rubato.

Tetzlaff, Nelsons, and the BSO had recently partnered for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (April 2015), but this was Tetzlaff’s first Mendelssohn with the BSO. He has played the work to recent acclaim in Berlin under Simon Rattle [here], with the Met Orchestra in a 2012 Carnegie Hall concert, and has recorded the work in 2011 with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Järvi. Tetzlaff’s sound is free from heavy use of vibrato, emphasizing a clear, sweet tone with careful attention to Mendelssohn’s tempi (Allegro molto appassionato for the opening). His main first movement cadenza was described by program annotator Steve Ledbetter as placed “in the heart of the movement,” and Tetzlaff respected Mendelssohn’s a tempo marking, rather than beginning slowly; it lived up to its fame: “no other cadenza had ever played so central a role in the structure of a concerto at that time.” His bowing emphasized the way Mendelssohn wrote for the premiering violinist, Ferdinand David, who possessed a famously agile right hand. This outing featured perfectly in-tune octaves and a penetrating but never shrill tone.

Nelsons generated a powerful momentum while maintaining nuanced attention to balance and seething tension. In triple-time sections, he created supple, dance-like phrases that added variety by speeding up slightly in the second bar of four-bar-phrases, then relaxing the tempo in the fourth.

After three quick curtain calls, Tetzlaff returned with a surprise: the very same Gavotte and Rondeau from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006 (sometimes called the Sonata No. 6 for unaccompanied violin) that Leonidas Kavakos chose last Saturday night after his masterful performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. However, the interpretations couldn’t have been more different: Kavakos followed Sibelius’s dark, expressive, muscular music with an extremely light, ornamented rendering of the Bach. Tetzlaff presented a more serious and contrapuntal interpretation, bringing out the long, lyrical phrases and emphasizing a duet-like texture.


I’ve been re-reading Jacques Barzun lately (longtime history professor at Columbia and controversial cultural critic), who asserted that Romantic art is an inclusive style of realism in the sense that it is full of particulars (like the Herdenglocken (cowbells) required by Mahler in his sixth and seventh symphonies, by Webern in his 5 Orchesterstücke, and by Strauss as Herdengeläute in his Alpensinfonie). Barzun valued Mendelssohn for being concerned with “expressiveness in melody and harmony” and the more radical Romantics (Berlioz was one of his heroes), for orchestral color that “implies a desire to mold musical form as closely as possible on psychological and dramatic truth.” Barzun especially praised those Romantics who adapted and extended classical forms in search of these truths, and both works on the program tonight rely heavily on transformation of classical orchestral forms by structural innovation.

All three published versions of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 call for between two (or three) strokes of a “Hammer” in the final movement. The score specifies: "Kurzer, mächtig, aber dumpf hallender Schlag von nicht metallischem Character (wie ein Axtheib), or “Short, powerful, but hollow/dull resounding strike/impact of a non-metallic character (like an Ax-blow)."

All three published versions of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 call for between two (or three) strokes of a “Hammer” in the final movement. The score specifies: “Kurzer, mächtig, aber dumpf hallender Schlag von nicht metallischem Character (wie ein Axtheib), or “Short, powerful, but hollow/dull resounding strike/impact of a non-metallic character (like an Ax-blow).”

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, feeling at times like a tuba concerto, benefited from the spectacular contributions from Principal Tuba Mike Roylance. The many lighthearted, pastoral parts of this work (tentatively called “Tragic” by the Mahler) featured fluid seamlessness from the BSO woodwind and brass choirs. Peppered with motives (and, depending on your interpretation, with leitmotifs), the outer movements layer marches, “devilish” xylophone passages accompanied by trilling reeds, references to Mahler’s earlier symphonies, and sounds natural to Mahler’s summer retreat in Maiernigg, on the Austrian Wörthersee, where Mahler composed almost all of his larger works between 1900 and 1907. Varying placement of the on- and off-stage cowbells and a purpose-built 2’x3’x4’ plywood box and hammer (created for the BSO’s spring concert and ready for transport to Europe) contributed crucial colors to this unique and moving performance.

Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, Principal Horn James Sommerville, and the five clarinets, led by principal William Hudgins, were the standouts of the evening. The strings improved upon the lush sound they presented in the BSO’s spring performances of this work, contrasting searing unisons and flexible adagio lines. The exposition of the first movement was repeated by Nelsons, with greatly increased intensity and more starkly contrasting dynamics on the second hearing. Shifts of tempo (frequently marked by Mahler, but sometimes vague, as in pìu mosso) were highly contrasting, and radically altered earlier tones and moods. After breaking his baton in the Scherzo, Nelsons conducted much of the third movement without it, seamlessly weaving a single melody out of fragmented bits of tune distributed between the first and second violins. This landmark interpretation brought forward the large-scale structural (classical) ideas intact, while reveling in the romantic BSO sound throughout.

Nelsons and Mahler

Nelsons made his Boston Symphony debut at Carnegie Hall in March 2011, conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. Universal Edition recorded his thoughts on Mahler in a 2011 interview on Mahler, published in Gustav Mahler: The Conductor’s Interviews (2011) [here].

This January, he led the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in a memorial concert for Claudio Abbado that concluded with the slow movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3; this concert has been released on an Accentus Music DVD.

Nelsons’s performance of Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 8 with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra was webcast live. His 2010 Birmingham interpretation of the Finale can be seen here.

A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.

1 Comment

  1. The info for the Nelsons/BSO M6th is here:

    Comment by Don Drewecki — August 20, 2015 at 3:14 pm

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