Nelsons leads BSO in Beethoven, Mozart and Schuller

February 17, 2017 at 11:01 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Emanuel Ax performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 with Andris Nelsons and the BSO Thursday night. Photo: HIlary Scott

Emanuel Ax performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 with Andris Nelsons and the BSO Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

While living in New York City in the 1940s, Gunther Schuller frequently visited the Museum of Modern Art, and what he saw fired his musical imagination. The work of Paul Klee was a particular source of inspiration, and Schuller composed his Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee in 1959. Klee gave some of his paintings musical titles. Schuller’s bold and brilliant score recasts those artworks back into sound. 

Thursday night at Symphony Hall, Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the first subscription performance of Schuller’s work in a decade.

The New York-born Schuller, who passed away in Boston in 2015, had a special relationship with the BSO, and the orchestra performed several of his scores over the decades. With Seven Studies, one gets the full glimpse of the composer’s kaleidoscopic style. Colors abound, and one movement is infused with a jazz tinge, an example of Third Stream music that he made a case for in a 1957 lecture. That movement, entitled “Little Blue Devil,” sounded with cool sophistication as bassist Edwin Barker supplied a smooth walking bass.

Elsewhere, the piece reflects the tone clusters and revolving colors that one might find in Schoenberg’s music. In “Abstract Harmonies,” hazy chords slowly took the shape of bold, brassy statements. Pointillisms, whistles, and flutters conjured Klee’s “The Twittering Machine” as if a toy were winding up and down. Clarinet and English horn themes in “Pastorale” conjured an eerie landscape. Most beautiful was “Arabian Town,” Klee’s bird’s-eye view of a rustic Middle Eastern village. A silky solo played offstage by Elizabeth Rowe was answered by a trio of harp, viola, and oboe, which ground out an Arabic tune with the verve of a folk band. At the podium, Nelsons led a sensitive account of the piece, conjuring Schuller’s imagery with commitment and grace.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major brought another of the evening’s musical highlights. The soloist was Emanuel Ax, who stands as one of the most vivid Mozart interpreters on the scene today. His playing was technically dazzling, the running figures of the concerto’s outer movements shaped with precision and finesse. Ax is also a colorist at the keyboard. The minor key sections of the first movement had dramatic weight and darkness, with Ax’s left hand chords landing like stones in a pond.

Ax approached this concerto’s poetic slow movement with pearly tone, his phrases shaped with just the right touch of rubato. Noteworthy too was Ax’s sensitivity for the piece’s chamber-like dialogue. In the finale, he matched his crisp statements with phrases from the woodwinds.

Mozart left no cadenzas for this concerto, so Ax played his own, casting the first and third movements’ themes within cascades and flourishes all while keeping to a delicate and tasteful Mozartean style.

Nelsons was a simpatico partner, drawing playing of smooth sensitivity in each movement. Mozart’s music, it seemed in this performance, was a conversation among friends.

After intermission, Nelsons led a bracing account of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. In works like this one, the Latvian conductor often takes time to revel in the details. He shaped the wind and string phrases of the first movement in lyrical arcs while building the exposition to a sturdy climax. The tutti accents fell like hammer blows.

In the funeral march, Nelsons drew out the main theme with a slight ebb and flow to the tempo. John Ferrillo’s solo oboe was like a weeping willow. The brass supplied powerful statements when called upon, and the fugal section sounded with darkness and precision.

The Scherzo was nimble and athletic. In the trio, the French horns were both solid and warm. The finale bounced with a dance-like energy, with Nelsons keeping the contradance feel upon which the movement is based. The conductor wove the theme and running passages into a dense web of sound, keeping each line separate and precise in the fugue. One may quibble with the conclusion, which was more stately than exciting and didn’t quite register as a true culmination of the symphony. 

The program will repeat 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200


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