BSO music director Andris Nelsons led a modest, Baroque-flavored program at Tanglewood on Friday: Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 (La poule), Thomas Adès’s Three Studies from Couperin, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste—a coughing patron behind me opined that “This is the worst program they’ve ever had.” No one, however, had a bad word for the keyboard soloist, the Russian Daniil Trifonov, whose commanding performance of the Mozart and a Prokofiev encore sent all home happy.
A ‘tombeau” is a memorial as well as a tomb; Ravel, in the Baroque dance suite he composed for piano between 1914 and 1917, was commemorating not only the great French keyboardist and composer François Couperin (1668-1733) but also friends who had been killed in World War I. In 1919, Ravel orchestrated four of the six movements. The BSO’s most recent performance, in 2013, was under guest conductor Charles Dutoit, whose light, urbane reading sparkled like champagne. What Nelsons offered was closer to farmhouse ale. His Prélude was pointillistic and very relaxed, Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The Forlane, a kind of jig, was similarly gracious; in the fairytale Menuet, you could hear echoes of the composer’s Ma mère l’Oye. The movement became a lush aubade with disquieting moments. The closing Rigaudon could have had more shaping. The performance overall ran a leisurely 19 minutes, which in this piece is von Karajan territory. It was beautiful, if not particularly French.
Composed in 1785, Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 got its Hen nickname from the way the strings start clucking just 90 seconds into the opening Allegro spiritoso. Throughout the movement, the G-minor first theme keeps threatening to develop into something dark and dramatic and the hen keeps interrupting with comic scratching. Boston’s recent benchmark for this symphony is the 2015 presentation (and subsequent recording) by Harry Christophers and the period-instrument Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra; in his interpretation, the hen undermines the ominous brooding of the main theme. Nelsons, with a bigger string section of modern instruments, was more genial, and relied on the considerable logic of Haydn’s writing. His hen was sweet rather than subversive; his strings were romantic in a legitimate way.
When it comes to the Andante, it’s actually Christophers who’s romantic, but there was no faulting Nelsons, who, at a tempo closer to Haydn’s marked Andante, looked ahead to sublime Mozart. The Menuet can become a lusty ländler, but not here, where gracious was again the watchword. I did, however, miss urgency in the galloping Vivace Finale, which to my ears always sounds like a hunt for the hen. Nelsons’s had no difficulty escaping.
After intermission came Adès’s 2006 Three Studies from Couperin, a trio of chamber-orchestra pieces each loosely based on a Couperin harpsichord piece of the same name. “Les amusemens” (Amusements) is minuet-ish, with a middle section and a sad conclusion. The jiglike “Les tours de passe-passe” (Sleight-of-Hand) is a hypnotic shell game with muted trumpet; “L’âme-en-peine” (Soul in Torment), with its funereal bass drum, might put you in mind of the words Dante gave Francesca da Rimini: “Life brings no greater grief / Than happiness remembered / In a time of sorrow.” These pieces are pleasing glosses on the Couperin originals, and that’s how Nelsons and the BSO performed them, but on first listening they didn’t stand up to the Ravel suite that opened the program. “L’âme-en-peine” did, however, convey the enormity of World War I in a way that Le tombeau de Couperin does not.
Boston was graced this past season with two superb BSO performances of Mozart piano concertos: 92-year-old Menahem Pressler in No. 27 with Moritz Gnann and 71-year-old Radu Lupu in No. 24 with Nelsons. The 26-year-old Trifonov’s traversal of No. 21 was on that level. The concerto begins with a stealthy march that suggests children at play, and when the second theme eventually appears, it is indeed a child’s game. Trifonov approached the piece as if playing Schumann’s Kinderszenen (which he had done two days earlier, in Ozawa Hall). He was self-possessed and also self-effacing; his tone pearly but not mushy, he established a firm bass without pounding and managed to sound thoughtful without slowing down. The playful second theme, integrated with the first, became chaste, especially in his exploration during the cadenza.
The famous Andante was sumptuously bittersweet, emphasis on bitter. Trifonov was so calm, so patient, his tone so limpid, his phrasing so weighted, so inevitable, he could have been Dinu Lipatti. He was more animated in the final movement, although even there he started sotto voce before erupting into exuberance. There was one encore, equally animated, the mincing Gavotte from Prokofiev’s Cinderella.
Nelsons accompanied Mozart with deep sympathy. He somehow managed to break his baton, but that didn’t faze him: he held the stub up to the audience, laughed, and carried on. The orchestra caressed the accompaniment, tiptoeing through the opening theme, glossy yet not glib.
Saturday brought a very different offering, a semistaged concert performance of Das Rheingold, the opening salvo from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. One would, of course, love to see Das Rheingold onstage, but with the Met no longer touring, that’s not likely to happen in Boston. And a concert performance does have its advantages if what you create in your imagination seems preferable to, say, the hydroelectric dam of Patrice Chéreau’s 1980s Bayreuth production or the hydraulics of Robert Lepage’s current staging for the Met. Das Rheingold remains a challenge regardless: once the Rhinemaidens have ridiculed Alberich (the title Nibelung) into renouncing love (but not sex), the music drama itself renounces love, becoming a story of unmitigated greed and unprincipled power whose only emotional redemption is embodied in the giant Fasolt. Most of the narrative is carried by Wotan, Alberich, and Loge, so their characterizations are crucial to success.
At Tanglewood, only Kim Begley’s Loge really delivered. He came out in black tie and long scarf, casting about as if there must be some other Loge whom Wotan was calling for. He primped and preened like Derek Jacobi in the British sitcom Vicious; from time to time he would take a swig from the flask from his coat pocket. And it wasn’t all handkerchief-snapping and pattycaking with Alberich—when the giants finally freed Freia, and she crossed from their side of the stage to the gods’, Loge was the first to comfort her. The character is conventionally played as a sneaky trickster, but this was comedy with class. If you shut your eyes and listened just to Begley, the visual delights still came through.
Yet by the time Loge entered, the performance had begun to wobble. The Prelude began well, brass burnished and glowing, and Nelsons giving the sense that this was going to be a human, as opposed to an epic, drama. But the cellos, once they took up the flowing Rhine arpeggios, were swamped by the horns and trombones, and the four great wind runups at the end didn’t register. Thereafter, Nelsons let the music roll, shaping it in small ways but not big ones and giving it almost too much of a human dimension for a story where the stakes are so high. The “Tarnhelm” motif, for example, was lovingly calibrated yet had no impulse. At times this Rheingold sounded oddly like Mahler’s Das klagende Lied.
There was no stage director listed for the performance. Begley had a concept for Loge’s dress and demeanor; the rest of the cast, in ordinary concert attire, seemed to have been left to their own devices. And the devices of Thomas J. Mayer’s Wotan and Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Alberich were not sufficient to sustain the evening. Mayer had authority at the top of his range but not in either the middle or the bottom, and as a character his Wotan seemed not so much the ruler of the gods as a husband trying to sneak out for a night with the boys, or his girlfriend. He was also a bad vocal match for his Fricka, Stephanie Blythe, who, replacing Sarah Connolly on short notice, simply overpowered him; she sounded more like his mother than his wife. Blythe did make an effort to be sympathetic and not just scolding, but she didn’t go far enough.
As for Schmeckenbecher’s Alberich, when the three Rhinemaidens strolled on, he waved at them like a lovestruck adolescent. I wasn’t sure Alberich as buffoon was a good idea, and in any event Schmeckenbecher didn’t maintain it, becoming tediously meanspirited thereafter. Like Fricka, Alberich is an unrewarding role; it’s easy, and fair, to blame Wagner, but the Alberich that Sam Handley sang in Jonathan McPhee’s Essential Ring in Lexington last year did manage dignity and even nobility. Here the Nibelheim sequence, with a one-dimensional Wotan and Alberich and not much help from Nelsons, seemed endless.
The Rhinemaidens—Jacqueline Echols as Woglinde, Catherine Martin as Wellgunde, and Renée Tatum as Floßhilde—were the usual thoughtless “nixies”; there was nothing here to offset Fricka’s later complaint that they lure men to their death in the Rhine. Echols did a nice job with the “Renunciation of Love” motif, and Tatum was seductive in her appeal to Alberich, although she kept looking away into the wings. David Cangelosi played Mime as victim; Malin Christensson, the soprano in last week’s Resurrection, was a slightly screechy, hysterical Freia. But Morris Robinson gave us a haunting and memorable Fasolt, the depth of his voice reflecting the depth of his love (not lust) for Freia. Ain Anger provided the perfect counterpoint as a calculating Fafner who lets his brother take the lead in the negotiations and then pounces when the prize is secured. (Fafner laments that he and his brother aren’t smart enough to dispossess Alberich of the gold; watching Ainger and Robinson, one might have begged to differ.) Patricia Bardon was a severe, enigmatic Erda who piqued our interest as well as Wotan’s. Froh (David Butt Philip) and Donner (Ryan McKinny) have only to sound heroic, and did.
The final sequence of Das Rheingold is a false triumph—the drama begins in E-flat major, the key of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Emperor Concerto, of Mahler’s Resurrection and his Eighth Symphony, and ends in a more mundane D-flat major. All the same, it has to open up like the rainbow bridge to Valhalla. Nelsons did let us hear the not always audible moment in Erda’s monologue where her rising minor-key motif (which Wagner turned into the major-key Rhine motifs) turns back downward. And Wotan grew in stature as he spoke of his need to visit Erda and understand. Later, the sound of Donner’s hammer on the rock resonated with real power, as opposed to the ping from the Zubin Mehta / New York Philharmonic recording of this scene that WCRB has been favoring of late.
But the gods should view Fafner’s murder of Fasolt with horror: Alberich has barely left the stage and already his curse is taking effect. Here Wotan and company hardly seemed to notice. And Nelsons’s reading of the closing pages flowed out to sea so implacably that the Rhine might have as well have been Kern and Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River.” It’s not a question of tempo—Nelsons’s performance, with no intermission, ran a standard two-and-a-half hours. It’s a matter of emotional weight. This Rheingold offered beautiful music and mostly beautiful singing. But when it comes to Wagner’s Ring, that’s just the beginning.