Andris Nelsons led the BSO in an all-Brahms program yesterday which, for the most part seemed a balm for these strained times. The Serenade No. 2 in A Major, opus 16, while pleasant and surely beautifully played, reminded one why this charming but ultimately somewhat meandering work isn’t often encountered. “Pleasant” describes almost every movement of this youthful work from 1859, Brahms’s 26th year. What kept the listener’s attention, though, were the harmonic and melodic glints of what was to come later in the composer’s long career. The overall sound of the ensemble is unusual in that Brahms omitted violins from his orchestration. Other commentators have suggested that this lends an overall darkened cast to the music. I found the piece quite bright enough, however, winningly light in tone and mood, especially in the closing movement where Brahms adds a piccolo to effervesce his score. If I were to complain, it would center on the music’s lack of direction — it never seems to be leading anywhere of consequence. The image of a shiny Mercedes-Benz up on blocks with wheels spinning comes to mind — an elegant construction but not really going anywhere. Having said this, I heard not a single unpleasant moment in the performance. Particularly euphonious was the burnished sheen and total unanimity of sound of the ‘cello section, with principal Blaise Déjardin and collaborative standmate Oliver Aldort setting examples. Nelsons led with an impressive economy of movement and the BSO played with its accustomed and admirable aplomb, with the winds in particularly piquant form.
Brahms’s mighty Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, opus 68 followed. It struck me how much Brahms had grown from his 20s to the maturity demonstrated in this remarkable and dramatic symphony, in which almost everything has emotional and musical weight of consequence laden with a palpable sense of direction. I found a lack of interpretive character in Nelson’s traversal of the symphony’s opening, where heavens are often stormed by other conductors. But from the second movement onward Nelsons’s interpretation began to emerge, an approach that favored illumination of inner voices and careful attention to the minutest details, all with appropriate application of subtle rubato. This interpretive engagement offered up many rewards, among them the wonderful playing of the BSO’s peerless woodwinds, particularly principal oboe John Ferrillo’s timbre-matched melodic line hand-offs to colleague William Hudgins’s liquid clarinet. But there, glory prevailed all around — First Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova’s sensitive and moving solo at the second movement’s conclusion, James Somerville’s thrilling horn call before the final movement’s memorable theme is first heard — in fact, the playing of the entire horn section all evening. The rich trombone chorale during that same transition spoke with wondrous nobility. From there on through the movement’s inexorable march to its final blazing cadences, Nelsons led with assurance and a dramatic forward thrust. As the final notes of the symphony faded, the ensuing roar of approval from the audience came as no surprise.
The BSO is using its stage extension for this concert, which thrusts the strings out toward the audience that allows space for trumpets and trombones to play with considerable empty space in front of them, and the horns with similar space in back of them. This, I surmise, caused the unaccustomed acoustic where I was sitting — Row V main floor center — where I found a disconcerting excess of treble, some lack of elemental string bass resonance (which I love), and slightly overbalanced trumpets, perhaps due to no ‘cello and bass players’ bodies directly in front of them to partially moderate their volume. When I inquired of the Press Office about this, their reply was that the extension was being employed “…just to provide more room for the orchestra.” I suspect that the extension also gives the strings “insulation” between them and the brass players’ emissions from their instruments’ bells — an important consideration in these trying times for public concerts. None of this, however, spoiled the singular pleasure of sitting in glorious Symphony Hall, hearing the BSO play glorious Brahms gloriously — a true balm for the soul, if ever there were one.
Reprises Friday afternoon and Saturday night.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 40 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 47 years.