Back in February 2018, we got a “Leipzig Week in Boston” at Symphony Hall in recognition of the fact that the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra now share the same music director, Andris Nelsons. That was the beginning of a five-year partnership in which the BSO and the GHO plan to co-commission new works, share programming, and visit each other’s cities. Now we’re in the middle of a second “Leipzig Week in Boston,” and this time, the GHO actually is visiting, performing in Symphony Hall for the first time since 2014, when Riccardo Chailly brought the orchestra here for a Celebrity Series event. On Sunday, Nelsons led the GHO in Brahms’s Double Concerto and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. This coming Thursday and Saturday, an “intermixed” orchestra of BSO and GHO members will play music by Richard Strauss, Haydn, Schoenberg, and Scriabin.
This past Tuesday, to a packed house, Nelsons led the GHO in an attractive program comprising Mahler’s Blumine, the Schumann Cello Concerto, with Gautier Capuçon, the Overture to Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (Scottish). The composers all have Leipzig connections. Mahler was writing his First Symphony — of which Blumine was originally a part — in 1888 while he was assistant to Arthur Nikisch at the Leipzig Opera. Schumann went to law school in Leipzig, met his future wife, Clara Wieck, there in 1830, and founded the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, remaining in the city till 1844. Wagner was born in Leipzig; he didn’t write Der fliegende Holländer there, but the opera was inspired in part by a turbulent ocean voyage he made in 1839 from Riga — Nelsons’s native city — to London. As for Mendelssohn, he was from 1835 until his death in 1847 the music director of the GHO. He met Schumann at the Wiecks’ house in 1835; when Schumann discovered the manuscript of the Schubert Ninth, he sent it to Mendelssohn, who premiered the work in Leipzig in 1839.
None of this music is unfamiliar to Boston audiences, but hearing it from the Leipzigers is a different matter — especially the Mendelssohn, which Nelsons and the BSO did here during the February 2018 “Leipzig Week.” The BSO tunes A above middle C to 441 Hz; the GHO, like most orchestras in Germany, plays at 443 Hz, which gives a slightly brighter sound. The GHO also retains the older orchestra seating arrangement whereby the first and second violins, instead of being grouped to the conductor’s left, are deployed antiphonally, firsts on the left, seconds on the right. This is the seating composers (including the four on Tuesday’s program) wrote for up through the first decade or so of the 20th century, and the BSO is well acquainted with it, since it was the preference of James Levine during his tenure here (2004–2011) as music director. Nelsons, when he became music director in 2014, reverted to the standard modern arrangement; one has to wonder why if he was open to the traditional seating in Leipzig he didn’t retain it in Boston.
I don’t know that it made a huge difference in Tuesday’s program, though right at the outset you could see, as well as hear, the second violins “answering” the firsts in the fourth bar of Blumine. Whether Mahler actually wrote Blumine in Leipzig could be debated. The piece appears to have started out life as Werners Trompetenlied, part of an 1884 commission to create incidental music for a performance of Joseph von Scheffel’s popular poem “Der Trompeter von Säkkingen” (“The Trumpeter of Säkkingen”). As far as we can tell, Mahler simply recycled this serenade into the symphonic poem that he was working on in 1888, giving it a name derived from the title of a collection, Herbst-Blumine (“Autumn Flora”), by his then-favorite writer, the German Romantic Jean Paul. He called it a “love episode,” and its muse was Johanna Richter, the soprano who also inspired his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a Wayfarer”).
The symphonic poem debuted in Budapest in 1889, with Blumine as the second of its five movements. By the 1893 Hamburg presentation, the poem had acquired a name, Titan, after the Jean Paul novel. But for the Berlin engagement in 1896, Mahler turned the piece into a four-movement Symphony No. 1, dropping both the Titan title and the Blumine movement. Blumine was actually thought lost until 1966, when a manuscript turned up. A few conductors have integrated it back into the symphony; most, along with most critics, have concurred with Mahler’s decision to delete it. Nowadays, it’s heard more often on its own, as was the case Tuesday.
Exactly why Mahler dropped Blumine has never been clear, but we can guess. One critic dismissed the movement as “trivial”; Mahler himself called it “fulsomely sentimental.” At some point it may also have dawned on him that Blumine’s opening trumpet phrase was note for note the big theme from the finale of Brahms’s First Symphony. The two melodies are even in the same key, C major; Mahler simply turned Brahms’s 4/4 into 6/8. This “borrowing” was surely unconscious on Mahler’s part, but if he realized what he’d done, he might have motivated to delete the movement before any critic took notice.
In any case, Blumine resonates through the rest of the First Symphony, most notably in the Ländler that opens the scherzo and as the finale’s yearning second theme. And Mahler never quite left it behind. The French horns start off his Third Symphony with a variation of Blumine’s initial trumpet phrase; trombones and tubas parody it in the scherzo of the Seventh. And the same Blumine cadence that nearly brought down the finale of the First causes the great opening Andante comodo of the Ninth to keep crashing.
Even if Mahler didn’t work on Blumine in Leipzig (because he had essentially finished it in 1884), he developed his symphony out of it there. So its presence on Tuesday’s program was appropriate, apart from which it doesn’t get played often in Symphony Hall. Mahler marked it Andante allegretto, and on the manuscript he wrote “The entire piece tender and flowing throughout! No ff!! No dragging!” That suggests he wanted a tempo quick enough to obviate any hint of sentimentality, but conductors who take Blumine in the six-to-seven-minute range tend to sound embarrassed. (The speed record, as far as I know, is Seiji Ozawa and the BSO at 5:52.) Better, I think, to let the movement be what it is, an unaffected trumpet serenade in simple ABA form.
Nelsons took 7:30, which seemed sensible, and the orchestra sang out with no apologies. The trumpet (Lukas Beno) had a nice silvery tone, though he tended to push forward, whereas the solo oboe (Domenico Orlando) and solo French horn (Bernhard Krug), when they came in, held back. I always think the middle section should go faster, but Mahler didn’t mark it to; Nelsons kept the tempo steady while creating a wistful, autumnal atmosphere, as if this youthful love were doomed from the start.
Schumann composed his Cello Concerto in Düsseldorf over a two-week period in 1850, just before starting work on his Third Symphony (Rhenish) and revising his Fourth. He never heard it performed; the piece made its debut in 1860, four years after his death, in, yes, Leipzig. Some 25 minutes long, it finds the composer up to his usual tricks. There are no breaks between movements (Schumann detested applause in the middle of a work); you might detect the beginning of the Langsam second movement in the way the triplets suggest 12/8 even though the time signature remains 4/4. This movement also brings a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra’s principal cellist, as if Clara were accompanying Schumann. The Sehr lebhaft third movement at least begins with the kind of forceful triple chords that feature the Fourth Symphony, but toward the end, in the middle of an accompanied cadenza, more triplets seems to take us into 6/8, though by the conclusion everyone’s back together in 2/4.
The piece is the usual Schumann tug of war between his two invented alter egos, dreamy Eusebius and the more impulsive Florestan, though how the concerto is meant to realize their conversation isn’t totally clear. Schumann marked the first movement Nicht zu schnell (“Not too fast”), but his original crotchet = 144 seems very fast indeed, and even the 130 he was eventually persuaded to adopt is faster than you’re likely to hear. The movement has a kindred spirit in the opening Maestoso of Chopin’s F-minor Second Piano Concerto, with its crotchet = 138; in both concertos, the lyric nature of the first theme seems in conflict with the metronome mark.
Capuçon was rhapsodic in the first theme of the Nicht zu schnell and delicate and thoughtful in the second, so there was at least a contrast. And unlike many conductors, Nelsons didn’t overcompensate by letting the orchestra dash away in the tuttis. Halfway through, solo French horn calls out the first theme; Krug left you guessing whether it’s an invitation or a warning. A sense of mystery prevailed in the rest of the movement; Capuçon was ardent enough, but I wanted something more. Passion, perhaps.
Nelsons didn’t alter the tempo much for the Langsam, but he made the music waltz, and Capuçon played with elegant, gracious rubato. He blended so beautifully with first solo cello Christian Giger, they might have been soulmates. He also observed Schumann’s “Schneller und schneller” (“Faster and faster”) transition into the Sehr lebhaft finale. Here Nelsons conveyed the mood swings in the rondo theme; Capuçon was similarly alert to Schumann’s uneven phrase lengths, and he made the cadenza a master class in teasing suspense.
For his encore, Capuçon joined with six members of the orchestra’s cello section in his own arrangement of Dvořák’s Opus 82 song “Kéž duch můj sám” (“Laßt mich allein,” or “Leave Me Alone”). Given the song title, the collegial gesture was ironic, but by this point, Capuçon had nothing to prove by performing a virtuosic showpiece, and poetry was every bit as welcome as the usual encore pyrotechnics would have been.
The Overture to Der fliegender Holländer brings us first a broad French horn theme representing the Dutchman, and then Senta’s theme initiated by the cor anglais. After these two have struggled for a few minutes, a different French horn call introduces the Norwegian sailors, but they dance only briefly before the Dutchman seems to scare then off.
It was here that the GHO’s distinctive sound came into focus. Bright, crisp, clean, light but not lightweight, the brass brilliant but not brash, the French horns warm and open, the winds pungent, the timpani resonant but not booming, the tuttis full but never clotted. Nelsons was quick off the mark, with the horns and then the trombones roaring out the Dutchman theme, and though he slowed considerably for Senta’s theme, the dramatic arc never sagged. Wind and brass made for cheeky Norwegian sailors; a big climax was followed by a big ritard and then the serene hymn of the Dutchman’s redemption. The Overture to Der fliegender Holländer should be the opera in miniature; here it was.
The impetus for the Scottish Symphony came from Mendelssohn’s 1829 tour of Scotland, which included a less-than-gratifying visit with Walter Scott. The Hebrides was composed the following year (revised in 1832); the symphony did not get on as quickly. Mendelssohn wrote home that he had got his start from a twilight tour of Holyrood Palace, where, as he notes, Queen Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, was stabbed to death on the orders of her jealous husband, Lord Darnley. He even drafted the first 16 bars of the symphony. But it wasn’t till 1841 that he was inspired to resume work on it. He premiered the Scottish with the GHO in 1842, having dedicated it to Queen Victoria. Although it was the last of his symphonies to be completed, it was the third in order of publication, which is why it’s known as No. 3.
How Scottish is it? Although Mendelssohn called it his “Scottish” symphony in that 1829 letter home, there’s no such indication on the published score. Schumann, in his 1843 review for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, writes that, according to “a third party,” the symphony was begun “during Mendelssohn’s residence in Rome.” He makes reference to “old melodies sung in lovely Italy” and concludes that Mendelssohn “places us under Italian skies.”
Schumann was, of course, misinformed. Even so, that such an astute critic could hear Italy in the symphony has to make you wonder about the Scottish epithet that was added to the score after Mendelssohn’s death, when the symphony’s origins became better known. And yet the name has stuck. George Balanchine, for one, found ample Scottish inspiration in the music when he selected the last three movements for his Scotch Symphony, with its girl in the red kilt and young laird and sylph and regiment of Her Majesty’s Highlanders.
The Scottish begins quietly in the winds and violas, a brooding and mysterious A-minor Andante con moto. The violins, when they enter, surge and stride; there are anticipations of Bruckner before the brooding recommences. This introduction lasts nearly four minutes, after which the 6/8 main theme kicks in, Allegro un poco agitato but also pianissimo. The tempo increases to Allegro assai at the first climax; the melancholy persists into the E-minor second subject. Mendelssohn lets loose only at the end, with the hint of a storm and galloping horses.
The movement subsides back into brooding but it doesn’t quite end, since Mendelssohn (perhaps detesting premature applause as much as Schumann) wrote that “the movements must follow one another immediately and not be separated by the customary long pauses.” So it’s a story without chapters. The brief F-major scherzo, Vivace ma non troppo, begins with scurrying clarinets; it’s a rustic folk dance in 2/4 with hints of French horn. The Adagio, in a moody A major, is beset at once by those same horns plus trumpets, a warning of the coming harsh irruptions that suggest a call to arms and perhaps funeral processions. The Allegro vivacissimo finale, back in A minor, is marked “Allegro guerriero” at the head of the score, so war is in prospect, but after a furious fugal section and a battle of themes, the music switches from 2/2 into 6/8 and A major for a reconciliatory chorale coda. Based on the introductory theme of the opening movement, with echoes of the finale of Beethoven’s Sixth, it brings the symphony full circle.
Like the Schumann concerto, the Scottish can sound better on the instruments for which the composer wrote it, and with the 30 or so strings he would have expected. But as big-band modern-instrument Mendelssohn, this Leipzig performance, like Nelsons’s with the BSO, was most welcome. The Andante introduction went at a real Andante (rather than an Adagio); it might have been less Highland misty than the BSO version, more luminous and bracing, like sunlight glinting on the lochs. The uncanny Bruckner premonition was palpable. The exposition began gently — as Mendelssohn indicated — before building to the military storm of the Allegro assai. You couldn’t tell whether fierce nature or an opposing army was in prospect — which is as it should be. The plaintive second subject went at the same speed but with a different sensibility. Nelsons did take the exposition repeat, which he had omitted in his BSO performances; that added three minutes, but even at his measured pace the movement never felt long.
The scherzo teetered between mystical and martial, its clarinet scurrying well defined, a cheerful folk dance with warnings from the French horns. The Adagio was a movement of intense contrasts, suggesting lovers torn apart by war; Nelsons indulged in innumerable little caresses while preserving the overall arc. The finale brought a powerful fugue that wound down to a spooky rendition of the theme on clarinet and bassoon. The jubilant A-major coda went in tempo; there was no need to inflate. This was big, heroic Mendelssohn — no wonder that the audience began to applaud before the final chord had died away.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.