Can there be a better testament to the value of the Tanglewood Music Center than my BMInt colleague Tony Schemmer’s stubborn insistence that Sunday afternoon’s concert had just been played by the BSO? Having forgotten his glasses and unable to read the handout, he remained unconvinced even after I confronted him with evidence that a crack orchestra of TMC fellows had just astonished him with its technical and interpretative chops.
By the time Richard Strauss finished his last poem tome, An Alpine Symphony, in 1915, his gestures and phraseology had become predictable, and he never had occasion to return to the genre. For some, the work is little more than a masterclass in orchestration. Yet the expert advocacy of Nelsons and the freshness and engagement of the players almost redeemed it for me.
Since it appeared at least to this listener so much more rewarding to play than to hear, I buttonholed a violist during the Alpenglow.
FLE: I gather from what I read in your faces and heard, that you really enjoyed the Strauss.
Violist: The Alpine Symphony demands a lot of all of us. It’s a concerto for every member of the orchestra and it made for an extraordinary climax for our summer.
Did you get tired of all the tremolos and 16th notes?
We joked at rehearsal that we should execute them with some sort of appliance strapped to our knees to give our wrists a break.
Do you find Andris Nelsons’s stick especially clear and helpful?
What he does with his entire body, and the way he talks with us, both really inspire us.
* * *
Strauss leads us through 22 stanzas, or scenes, of vivid coloration, beginning and ending with depictions of Night. In between, we hear approximations of Sunrise, The Ascent, Entry into the Forest, Wandering by the Brook, At the Waterfall, Apparition, On Flowering Meadows, On the Alpine Pasture, Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path, On the Glacier, Dangerous Moments, On the Summit, Vision, Mists Rise, The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured, Elegy, Calm Before the Storm, Thunder and Tempest, Descent, Sunset, and Quiet Settles.
We needed no tour guide or surtitles to explain this journey. The composer’s use of cowbells to evoke an Alpine pasture might have constituted cheating, although he had no trouble imitating cuckoos without special devices. Transported we were at the start to an amorphous Night, somehow simultaneously suggesting Haydn’s chaos in the opening of Creation and dripping Rhinemaidens, that is until a single ping of the glockenspiel placed us in Strauss’s particular realm. Schemmer wondered if Strauss had been making affectional allusion to Wagner or whether his resorting to similar orchestral and harmonic techniques had been subliminal.
When a bass drum / chariot delivers Sunrise, it seems to be driven by the Marschallin, so redolent is the moment of Rosenkavalier, from but five years earlier. In the three-quarters of an hour that ensued, a feldmarschallisch Nelsons summoned virtuosic execution and achieved exquisitees of orchestral refinement and color that leapt off the pages. Many short solos attracted attention over the span of countless climaxes. Aaron Schuman’s brilliantly inerrant trumpet gleamed in its considerable exposure. In what is often considered a starring role, organist Brent McGuire both pealed forth and underpinned, although the shed’s Aeolian Skinner does not quite live up to the composer’s expectation for impact. Liam Boisset’s oboe Summited in timbres at once complex and romantic, producing perhaps the long-seeming work’s most heartstopping moment.
To be sure, every section distinguished itself in this supreme test. The well-exercised strings never tired nor lost sheen. The winds parlayed piquancy onto scenic impasto. The busy and virtuosic brass frequently pinned the needle on my dBSPL meter at 95. Then a brief discursion among the horns: it seems that Strauss insisted the 2nd and 4th hold an F for 24 measures through the agency of a pneumatic assistant called the Aerophor. One wants to know whether the TMC horns managed this feat with circular or staggered breathing.
Over the last several minutes of the fine but long coda, as Night persistently threatens to fall, Strauss keeps saying goodbye without leaving. When Nelsons did eventually drop his baton the players’ martial stomping (as in the Beethoven prior) attested to what will linger as a mountaintop moment in their musical lives.
An alert and well-argued traversal of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 had opened the concert in what felt like another dimension. Paul Lewis hewed in granite the themes handed him by the orchestra. Nelsons presided with stylishly contrasted dynamics and surprisingly ample sway. Spiky interruptions and long shapely phrases alike characterized an interpretation that adventured warmth within liveliness.
Lewis entered the affray with bold emphasis before answering himself with delicate introspection which never wilted. Outburst and genial arguments contended in well-integrated chamber music fashion. The gigantic and brawny cadenza gave Lewis license to ripple muscular chords and assertive arpeggios before relaxing back to meaning-laden scales and an urgent plea for the main theme. Penetrating trills in octaves brought the band back for the finish.
The piano intoned the soulful opening of the second movement as if Lewis were alone onstage for a transcendent sonata adagio before strings and winds enlarged and embellished in convincing response. From all the forces Nelsons aroused lordly, deeply communicative interplay.
The third movement Rondo romped and rollicked. Oboist Gretchen Myers dispatched her tune with patrician playfulness. Then the cello section’s fugal entrance led to the developing general rejoicing.
It was no wonder they might be mistaken for the name band. Ebullient youth, having much to pride themselves in, stamped their feet in affirmation, gratitude, and approval. So schön.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer