Polish soprano soars in Strauss and Mahler with Boston Philharmonic

February 20, 2015 at 12:00 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Soprano Aga Mikolaj performed with the Boston Philharmonic Thursady night at the Sanders Theatre.

Frigid temperatures, chin-high snow drifts, and transportation delays may be contributing to a low mood in Boston these days, but Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic lifted spirits Thursday night at Sanders Theatre with the fresh and welcome sounds of spring.

The theme connecting the works on the program was nostalgia, and, indeed, nostalgia for warmer climates and destinations might have characterized the feelings of many listeners in the hall. Two of the works heard Thursday night—Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony—cast a backward glance on a bygone world, but the emotions evoked just as easily translate to our current times as memories of more hospitable seasons and places linger.

There may be no more nostalgic and death-haunted music in Romantic symphonic literature than Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Based on poems by Hermann Hesse and Josef von Eichendorff, the work contains some of the richest, most affecting music ever to flow from the composer’s pen.

Polish soprano Aga Mikolaj was in full command of each song, coloring her voice to reflect Strauss’s musical depictions of the poems. In “Frühling” she sang with radiant warmth while handling the music’s wide and difficult leaps with grace. Mikolaj’s singing of “September” and “Im Abendrot” was more creamy and lyrical, her tone seeming to glow as if at a distance. “Beim Schlafengehen” was achingly beautiful as  Mikolaj imbued her phrases of with hints of longing to capture the life-weary fatigue of Hesse’s poem.

Zander wove a silky bed of orchestral accompaniment that was awash in bold colors, from golden violin melodies to amber-rich reed figures and rosy brass chords. The musicians delivered it all with pitch-perfect accuracy. The standouts were concertmaster Joanna Kurkowicz and French hornist Kevin Owen, who each lofted elegant solos.

Zander has proven time and again that he is a gifted Mahlerian, and he did so again Thursday night through a sturdy and insightful reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. With bold gestures he coaxed lines of chamber music-like intimacy from the players without losing the big picture in a work that brims with sunlit lines and dance-like energy.

The orchestra responded with playing that sparkled down to the finest detail. The musicians handled the playful themes of the first movement with delicacy. The second movement, a ländler, was particularly attractive with its squirrelly solos for oboe, clarinet, flute, and violin. The third movement unfolded in silvery melodies, encompassing cellos, violas, and violins before breaking into a warm oboe line. Martha Moor’s harp added a golden touch. The Boston Philharmonic horns, with bells up, supplied powerful calls for the triumphal music that comes at movement’s close.

But the gem of the setting was the fourth movement, Mahler’s childlike view of heaven, which spotlighted Mikolaj once again.

It’s unusual for sopranos to perform both Strauss and Mahler on a single program as the two composers demand very different things from the singer. But one would have been hard pressed to find a more dexterous performer than Mikolaj. With a voice that is thoroughly rich and gorgeous, she is equally capable of softening her tone without losing its penetrating effect.  Whereas her singing in the Strauss was rich and earthy, she delivered her lines in the Mahler with a light, nimble touch, her upper notes taking on an innocent, boyish quality. Supporting her was a silvery stream of orchestral accompaniment that occasionally burst into passages of swirling energy, which the orchestra rendered with equal parts bite and bounce.

The concert opened with Johann Strauss Jr.’s Frühlingsstimmen.

The grand, waltzing grace of its primary theme aside, the work has the haunting presence of an antique chest. Zander led the orchestra in a bright, spirited rendering that captured the full splendor of its Viennese charm. A few untidy string attacks aside, the musicians followed the conductor’s every move as he pulled and pushed the phrases to lilting effect.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday at Mechanics Hall, Worcester; 8 p.m. Saturday at Jordan Hall; and 3 p.m. Sunday at Sanders Theatre. bostonphil.org.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Polish soprano soars in Strauss and Mahler with Boston Philharmonic”

  1. Posted Feb 21, 2015 at 10:44 pm by Jantique Fielding

    I attended the Saturday concert in Jordan Hall. It was wonderful. Ms. Mikolaj had a beautiful facile voice, with excellent command of her instrument, and the BPO was – OF COURSE – excellent.

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