Nelsons serves up winning variations on multiple themes with BSO

January 9, 2015 at 1:02 pm

By David Wright

Andris Nelsons applauds soloists Gautier Capuçon and Steven Ansell following the performance of Strauss’s “Don Quixote” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Michael Blanchard

Aiming to vary things a bit, on Thursday night the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Andris Nelsons, performed works of…Brahms, Haydn, and Richard Strauss.

All right, so the choice of composers didn’t venture far from standard BSO fare.  However, the works themselves consisted, respectively, of variations on Haydn, variations by Haydn, and variations that left Haydn far in the rear-view mirror.

Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn found the future creator of four classic symphonies and several outstanding concertos trying his wings as a composer for orchestra.  The simple variation form allowed his sonic imagination to roam freely, without the burden of a symphonic argument.

Haydn’s own variations were tucked into his Symphony No. 90 in C major as the intriguing Andante second movement, a fine specimen of Haydn’s proprietary “double variations” form, that is, a set of variations on not one theme but two themes in alternation.

And finally there was Strauss’s Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, a concoction of vivid episodes from Cervantes’s novel characterized by shape-shifting leitmotivs and even a few moments of outright Wagner parody.

Sometimes it takes an orchestra a little time to get in gear at the start of a concert, but on Thursday the BSO players were fully in the Brahms from the first bar, playing the piece’s graceful theme—apparently not by Haydn, but Haydn-like enough to fool even an early-music expert like Brahms—with a warmth and lilt that whetted the appetite for Brahms’s musical thoughts.

The entrance of the strings in the first variation can give one the feeling of being beamed up all at once from the 18th century to the age of Wagner.  On Thursday, however, Andris Nelsons kept the sound lean and the tempo steady, signaling a markedly Classical approach to this music that prevailed throughout the performance.

As Nelsons propelled the orchestra through what were, in effect, brief Romantic character pieces created from the theme, one could almost picture the composer in his laboratory, adding a dash of horns here and a swoop of cellos there, just to see how it sounded.

The result was an orchestral sound more layered than blended, but with all the parts in balance and playing off each other nicely.  In general, Nelsons’s no-nonsense attitude let the music speak for itself and even gave it a lift, and only occasionally skated over its more tender and tentative moments.

The choice to open the program with Brahms’s take on Haydn instead of Haydn himself apparently arose from the compactness of the one-movement Variations compared to the four-movement symphony.  In any case, neither performers nor audience treated this piece like a routine curtain-raiser, and the applause was long and enthusiastic.

In the opening pages of Haydn’s symphony, as the slow introduction led into a somewhat heavy-footed Allegro assai, one began to wonder if Nelsons’s goal this evening was to conduct Brahms like Haydn and Haydn like Brahms.  But no, the orchestra was playing with all the Classical-era virtues of clarity, articulation, and awareness of detail.

In the end, one concluded that, for all the liveliness and accuracy of their execution, conductor and players weren’t quite catching the train (admittedly twisty) of Haydn’s thought.  More tension in the line and sense of rhythmic direction might have helped turn the arbitrary into the inevitable in this first movement.

In the Andante variations, the orchestra lumbered a bit, its sound heavy and the rhythm just slightly out of focus.  (Again, this was not for lack of attention to detail; at one point, the irrepressible dancer-maestro even conducted a flute trill, fluttering his left hand at the player.)  But if the idea was to show links between Haydn’s coloristic and harmonic innovations and those of Brahms, this interpretation certainly succeeded at that.

Haydn’s idea to soften the outlines of his rather foursquare (threesquare?) minuet with a glow of woodwind sound was wonderfully realized by the BSO winds, led in this segment of the program by assistant/associate principal players such as oboist Keisuke Wakao, whose phrasing was alternately pert and swooning in the trio’s long oboe solo.

Nelsons and his players finally got the lead out in the bustling Allegro assai finale, playing exactly in time (no rushing) and with irresistible rhythmic verve.  After a bit of comic business during the four bars of silence that followed the loud false “ending” (conductor does a quizzical double-take at his score), the piece hummed along to its actual conclusion, sending the audience to intermission with a smile.

The memory of outstanding Strauss performances by this orchestra and by this conductor—and more recently, by this orchestra and conductor together—was enough to bring out a near-capacity audience on a day of cold-weather emergency warnings.  Perhaps expectations of excitement comparable to last year’s passionate Salome were unfair to Don Quixote, a comical set of “fantastic variations.”

In any case, Thursday’s performance, while brilliantly executed by cellist Gautier Capuçon (with strong support from the BSO’s principal violist Steven Ansell and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe) and all sections of the orchestra, tended to be a little short on character.  (However, the wooden-horse episode, a “Ride of the Valkyries” parody that goes Wagner one better with a wind machine, was rich.)

It would also be unfair to expect Capuçon to shine like a concerto soloist in a part composed (as Steven Ledbetter’s program notes pointed out) for a cellist in the orchestra, not a lone player on a platform, as on Thursday night.  While dramatic and challenging to play, this cello solo doesn’t quite have the scope and star power of a concerto part in the Romantic era.

Still, one had to admire the energy and agility of Capuçon’s playing, and his clear, vibrant tone that rose over the orchestra and reached into the depths of Symphony Hall.  But much of the time his coolness and poise at the instrument conveyed little of the volatile passions of the daffy Don.

But one wants to be remembered for one’s best efforts, and at key moments in the score—such as the knight’s slightly cracked but touching meditations during his all-night “vigil” (variation 5) and the soaring Straussian lyricism of his last moments on earth—the cellist rose to the occasion with sustained, inspired playing.

Violist Ansell, who had equal billing with Capuçon in the program but a much less prominent part in the score—the viola shares the supporting “role” of the squire Sancho Panza with the bass clarinet and tenor tuba—found a variety of expression from bonhomie to exasperation in the bumpkin-style tunes Strauss gave him.

Finding the narrative thread in this piece—for which Strauss, in effect, snipped out bits of Cervantes’s novel, then scrambled them—is no easy matter, and Nelsons can’t be said to have accomplished that on Thursday night.  Much of the time, the episodes seemed to follow each other in random order, and the performance needed more of that two-sided coin called passion and humor.

But on any given page, the phrasing was elegant and right, and the orchestra sounded mahvelous.  A string of small pleasures doesn’t take the place of one big one, but it will do.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.  bso.org; 617-266-120

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