Nelsons, BSO, launch subscription season with richly detailed Mahler, Haydn

September 24, 2017 at 11:49 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra music of Haydn and Mahler Saturday night., Photo: Michael Blanchard

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in music of Haydn and Mahler Saturday night. Photo: Michael Blanchard

In his three seasons as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons has delivered captivating performances of romantic and twentieth-century symphonies. The Shostakovich recording project, which will continue this season, is his greatest achievement with the BSO. The Brahms mini-festival from last November also resulted in excellent recordings, and Nelsons will turn his attention to Bruckner later this season.

The symphonies of Mahler have been another specialty for the Latvian conductor. Past seasons have brought deep and reflective performances of the Fourth, Sixth, and Ninth symphonies. Saturday night at Symphony Hall, Nelsons rang in the fall season with a radiant rendition of the composer’s First Symphony.

Mahler’s symphonies are teeming with detail, and Nelsons’ reading of the First uncovered every intricacy. Woodwind calls in the symphony’s opening seemed to sound out from the mists. The quotation of “Ging heut’ Morgan über’s Feld,” a song from Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, grew like a soft sunrise before unfolding into an exuberant dance. Elsewhere, the movement teemed with imagery: Woodwinds recalled the sounds of birds and strings evoked primordial darkness.

The second movement Ländler was bold and stately, while the lines of the Trio flowed together smoothly. In the openings of the third movement, Edwin Barker’s bass solo had the solemnity of a chant, and the lines of “Bruder Jakob,” the dominant theme in this movement, flowed in a long crescendo. The Klezmer-like section moved briskly, and the music central to the movement, which Nelsons elicited with generous rubato shading, flowered beautifully. This was Mahler in which to revel.

But Nelsons kept an eye to the big picture. The cut-and-paste, quick-changing form of some of the movements in this symphony flowed together seamlessly into rousing climaxes. That cohesion was especially evident in the final movement, which the BSO brasses punctuated with an energetic burst. As with Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler’s First is teleological, and themes from the first movement, merely echoes of their former selves, haunt the conclusion like memory. Nelsons’ technicolor reading of the score drew playing of rapt intensity. Trumpets and horns sounded out the final theme with bright tone and power to bring the symphony to a satisfying conclusion.

To open the concert, Nelsons led a similarly detail-rich reading of Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 in E-flat.

As the last of the second set of the composer’s London Symphonies, the work bears the nickname “Drumroll” due to its use of a timpani roll in the opening measures. In the original manuscript, Haydn left no indication of how a player is to shape the gesture, and expressive markings are usually left up to conductors.

Nelsons called for a lively crescendo, and the roll unfolded in a long arc that crested and broke like a wave. When the movement proper began, the conductor coaxed dark lyrical lines from the strings and took time to draw out the many melodies that weave through the Introduction. The ensuing Allegro bounced with grace and spirit.

The second movement was a journey from darkness to light, with concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s sunlit solo supplying a rustic verve. The Minuet and Trio bounded with a sturdy lilt, though not all of the attacks were crisp — scattered string and wind statements robbed the music of some of its boldness.

As in the Mahler symphony, the sparkling finale brought out the finest playing from the orchestra. But there was also subtlety. Soft bass and cello lines swelled into a web of competing phrases. The buoyant conclusion ended the symphony in grand fashion. Haydn, like Mahler, saved the best for last.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Tuesday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

 

 

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