Nelsons, BSO explore contrasting takes on the eternal from Widmann and Brahms

October 7, 2016 at 11:55 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Jörg Widmann's "Trauermarsch" with pianist Yefim Bronfman Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Jörg Widmann’s “Trauermarsch” with pianist Yefim Bronfman Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Funeral processionals set to music are something of a lost practice in the modern world. Some of the greatest in that tradition have endured, with Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, Beethoven’s Third, and Mahler’s First and Fifth Symphonies containing the most prominent examples.

The recapturing of the depth and power of such pieces is what makes Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarsch, a work for piano and orchestra, such intriguing music. Commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Toronto Symphony for pianist Yefim Bronfman and premiered by the former ensemble in 2014, the work is a dark and brooding reimagining of a genre that has largely been consigned to the history books.

Bronfman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Andris Nelsons, gave the Boston premiere of the work Thursday night at Symphony Hall, which marked the first time the orchestra has performed any of Widmann’s music.

The 43-year-old German composer has firmly established a reputation as a conductor and world-class clarinetist, and, with its superb craftsmanship, his music has steadily found its way on to concert programs of major orchestras around the globe. 

With pieces like Trauermarsch it is easy to hear why. A piano concerto in all but name, the twenty-minute work is an emotionally penetrating panorama of orchestral color. The score calls for a large orchestra and a percussion section that includes gongs and bells of various sizes.

Trauermarsch unfolds through familiar idioms of the funeral-march genre. Much of the work is built from a two-note sighing motive, which, as Monteverdi noted, itself symbolizes lamentation. The piece is less a march than an orchestral and piano fantasy bathed in dissonance, recalling simultaneously the dark lyricism of Berg and the dense, abrasive sounds of Penderecki. Central to the work is a quasi-pop song theme, which unfurls in moments of tender melody before being twisted in thorny harmonies.

At the keyboard, Bronfman gave a performance marked by clarity and precision. He played the work’s clamorous passages with a tone that seemed to shine from a distance, imbuing a haunting, atmospheric power to Widmann’s work.

Nelsons led with a fine ear to the details of the score, and the orchestra responded with bold commitment to make a strong case for the work. The loudest passage of the piece, marked con tutta la forza (with every bit of force), sounded with earth-shaking power.

The second half of the program was dedicated to another work concerned with death, Brahms’ A German Requiem.

Brahms’ music is a specialty for Nelsons, and he will be leading a full cycle of the composer’s piano concertos and symphonies with the BSO beginning next month. The conductor crafted the long lines of the German Requiem in a vocal arc, weaving the phrases into thick tapestries of sound. The instrumental and vocal parts were well balanced, and if the performance didn’t quite match the spiritual resplendence of Bramwell Tovey’s interpretation with the BSO two years ago, it was remarkable for its poetic depths. 

That was largely due to the evening’s soloists, baritone Thomas Hampson and soprano Camilla Tilling. Hampson sang with a firm, stentorian voice that had the conviction of a country preacher’s sermon. Yet he was equally capable of capturing the plush warmth of “Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis” in the sixth movement of the work. Tilling sang with a vibrato that infused her performance of “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” with gravity and intensity. Her repetitions of the concluding phrases of the movement, Brahms’ ode to his deceased mother, conveyed the music’s inherent sorrow.

The heroes of this performance were the singers of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya, the ensemble found the soft elegance and stirring emotionalism of Brahms’ score. There were a few tentative moments in the final chorus “Selig sind die Toten,” where the soft passages suffered from some unfocused attacks. But elsewhere the ensemble sounded at its full, resonant best, singing with warm buttery tone in the most famous movement, “Wie lieblich sind die Wohnungen,” where the serpentine lines crested and broke over one another like waves.

The performance will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

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