Nelsons, Lewis join forces for Brahms program with Tanglewood Orchestra

August 1, 2016 at 12:35 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Paul Lewis performed Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 Sunday with Andris Nelsons leading the Tanglewood Music Institute Orchestra. Photo: Hilary Scott

Paul Lewis performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 Sunday with Andris Nelsons leading the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Photo: Hilary Scott

The music of Johannes Brahms remains something of a specialty for Andris Nelsons. The Latvian conductor’s concert with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, heard Sunday afternoon at the Koussevitzky Shed, coupled the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the First Symphony, foreshadowing what hopes to be an enriching traversal of Brahms’ complete symphonies and piano concertos with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this coming season.

With its sprawling structure, rich lyricism, and sinewy orchestral textures, the Piano Concerto in D minor resembles a symphony in all but name. The soloist, Paul Lewis, presently enjoys status as one of the most exalted pianists on the scene today, a position earned mainly through his interpretations of Beethoven and Schubert sonatas.

His Brahms is equally compelling. The pianist commands a fluent technique and a smooth, buttery tone well attuned to Brahms’ piano writing. Lewis performed the first movement’s searching themes with a hymn-like solemnity. Yet he could turn on the power when called upon, rendering the movement’s crashing chords with precision.

Above all, his style is songlike with passages beautifully shaded, as in the minor-key sections of the final movement, where the music swelled from gentle phrases to full, rich statements with ease. The second movement was particularly gorgeous, the main theme sounding from the pianist as if from a haunting distance.

Lewis had a simpatico partner in Nelsons, who spun a feathery bed of accompaniment. The conductor has a penchant for dramatic readings, but this performance was particularly affecting in its soft passages. The lines of the finale’s short fugue were woven into a silky fabric before culminating in solid blocks of sound. The young musicians of the TMC orchestra responded with playing of furious concentration.

The ensemble was at its best in the second half of the concert, which was dedicated to Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor.

The legacy of Beethoven was an albatross around Brahms’ neck. The composer worked on his First Symphony for twenty-one years. And when it was finally heard in 1876, some commentators noted similarities between Brahms’ effort and the work of the dead master, especially in light of the fact that the principal theme of the final movement bears a striking resemblance to the “Ode to Joy.” “Any ass can see that,” Brahms quipped in response.

Yet Brahms’ symphony is a work of startling originality, full of singing lyricism and rich contrapuntal textures. Sunday’s performance featured glowing string sound and fine solo contributions from the winds, especially in the outer movements.

The TMC orchestra played with a fine corporate blend that was smooth in all sections. Even the brass, perhaps the hardest section to balance in a young ensemble, was fully capable of meshing with the strings and woodwinds without peeking out of the texture.

As is his custom, Nelsons led a reading with an eye to the fine details of the score. The song-like themes of the second movement flowed in graceful arcs, and he built the pulses that open the finale into languid phrases. When the big theme of the movement appeared, he drew playing of stirring energy. Rarely has the symphony sounded so good from an orchestra of student musicians.

The annual “Tanglewood on Parade” concert will pair the Boston Symphony Orchestra with the Boston Pops in music by Mozart, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Gandolfi, and John Williams 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Koussevitzky Shed.; 888-266-1200


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