Anne-Sophie Mutter, a gifted violinist of remarkable talent joined BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons to offer the American premiere of Thomas Adès’s Air, a work jointly commissioned by Mutter, Roche Commissions for the Lucerne Festival, Carnegie Hall, and the BSO. Mutter also dazzlingly played Mozart’s Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major, K. 207.
Yet, the evening wasn’t solely Mutter’s to “own.” First on this eclectic program Nelsons and the BSO played the rarely encountered tone poem Luonnotar, Opus 70 (1913) by Jan Sibelius. The admirable vocal soloist was South African soprano Golda Schultz, whose shining, limpid tone and heartfelt communicative stage presence were among the most memorable moments of the evening. Schultz, singing the colorful Kalevala creation tale in Finnish, bowled over everyone in Symphony Hall with her embodiment of this unusual and atmospheric score. This was Schultz’s debut with the BSO, and one hopes the orchestra’s powers-that-be will find a way to re-engage this marvelous singer.
In the concertmaster’s seat was a visiting contender for that position: Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay. His credentials are impressive. He currently serves as the Concertmaster of London’s renowned Philharmonia Orchestra, is a recipient of several European violin prizes, and has also held a leading role with the Academy of St. Martins in the Fields. He led collegially with clarity and authority that seemed to appeal to his fellow string players and Andris Nelsons.
We journeyed somewhat abruptly from early 20th-century Nordic clime to 1773 Austria and heard Anne-Sophie Mutter play another rare work, Mozart’s first Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The BSO program book recalls that the Orchestra had played this music “…only a handful of times,” first with Leinsdorf and Concertmaster Joseph Silverstein at Tanglewood in July of 1964. Since then, Mutter has played this concerto with the BSO with Andre Previn in 2007, and several times thereafter as soloist/conductor in 2011. Interesting, that she and the BSO have such a history with this particular work.
Steven Ledbetter’s program note reminded that Mozart was a very accomplished violist and violinist who soloed in the premieres of all of his five violin concerti — yet another demonstration of this composer’s seemingly endless gifts.
Mutter has this music in her bones, and the performance she offered was an amalgam of fierce concentration, elegant tone, open communication, and complete focus. From the very first notes of the orchestral introduction she was very much in the moment, visually and bodily reflecting where the music led. Her playing was alternately muscular, flexible, and above all beautifully intoned, completely controlled and precise, yet all overlaid with an appropriate grace. This made for a colorful and compelling approach to Mozart’s significant demands. To say that Mutter mastered all of these demands is but a pale description of what she accomplished. She also offered elegant cadenzas written by Hans Sitt (1850-1922), an admired Czech violin and viola pedagogue. All this was playing of a very high order. The audience recognized what she had accomplished and called her back several times for curtain calls. Nelsons and the BSO musicians reflected that enthusiasm.
After intermission Mutter returned to play Thomas Adès: Air (Homage to Sibelius). In this mesmerizing score she played in a very high range almost completely throughout, the BSO accompanying with scalar, ostinato-like music that constantly rose and fell in hypnotic and engaging canonic repetition. Subtle sonorities of piano, harp, marimba and tuned gongs pervaded the string-rich texture of sound. While I found any obvious connection to Sibelius audibly elusive, Robert Kirzinger points out in his program note that Sibelius is admired for his protracted pacing of themes and motives that slowly evolve and morph over time. This Adès, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Nelsons, and the BSO certainly achieved. While perhaps not as immediately riveting as some of Adès’s other music heard this season and before, Air is a welcome new work of calm and floating beauty.
Nelsons returned to perform a wonderfully realized performance of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5, bringing a bardic element to the Symphony’s opening moments, a refreshing interpretive gesture that was revisited through this excursion. This music remains a startlingly innovative composition today. It has enjoyed a long association the BSO beginning in April, 1922 with Pierre Monteux conducting, evolving with Serge Koussevitzky’s some 50 performances between 1927 and 1950 and his legendary 1936 recording. Susanna Mälkki’s innovative 2011 BSO interpretation remains in memory, as do Colin Davis’s granitic and monumental performances and recording from the mid-70s. Yet Nelsons brought his own ideas to the stage and they proved appealing and effective.
This symphony offers ― gossamer strings, fluttering flutes, rippling clarinet duets, mournful bassoon solos (this evening so eloquently offered by Principal bassoonist Richard Svoboda) ― evocative horn calls, piquantly played by Associate Principal Richard Sebring and his stand mates, huge, elemental swells of fulgent tone from trumpets and trombones… it’s a long list. Nelsons masterfully demonstrated wonderful elements of detail and knowing pacing during first movement’s exciting accelerando to its blazing climax. The charming second movement brought pointed and poignant woodwind color eloquently juxtaposed upon the richly hued dominance of the BSO’s renowned string section’s color and richness. The final movement began with a perfect tempo, allowing the initially scurrying strings to ultimately coalesce and set up the noble tune that Marc Mandel’s note describes as a “…bell-like and tolling figure” in the horns and woodwinds. This figure will provide the major melodic element of this movement’s finalé. As the end approached with several marvelously discordant moments of wrenching emotion, the Symphony ends ― uniquely ― with six fffz-marked widely spaced chords that the composer indicates be separated from one another by a specific number of beats. Conductors rarely follow these instructions, likely surmising that to do so would diminish the finality of these fortisissimo outbursts. Nelson’s pacing here seemed ideal. The orchestra delivered each powerful chord perfectly together, and Principal Timpanist Timothy Genis brought everything home with his incisive and clearly played grace notes prior to each of the movement’s two final chords.
This was a Sibelius Fifth performance fully realized, and it made me want to hear more of this composer’s music conducted by Nelsons. Think of what he and the BSO might bring to the Sixth and Seventh symphonies, Pohjola’s Daughter, Tapiola, En Saga…one can hope!
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.