A mixed bag of micromanaged Beethoven from Nelsons, BSO

November 24, 2018 at 11:40 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in music of Beethoven Friday afternoon. Photo: Robert Torres

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in music of Beethoven Friday afternoon. Photo: Robert Torres

Of Beethoven’s early symphonies, the Symphony No. 4 is perhaps the most unusual. Cast in a taut structure and brimming with Haydnesque wit, the Fourth keeps an eye toward the past. When viewed in context, it seems like a break in the evolutionary chain of innovation that links the Second, Third, and Fifth Symphonies.

Conductors have interpreted the work in different ways. Some lead it with restraint, keeping its classical roots squarely in focus. Others mine a verve and vitality from this music, rendering it with the same fiery passion that marks the heroic style of Beethoven’s other, grander symphonies.

Andris Nelsons, who led the symphony as part of an all-Beethoven program Friday afternoon at Symphony Hall, seemed to fall between those two views. Though rich in detail, his rendition of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies delivered neither the classical sensitivity nor the live-wire intensity that make them so memorable.

The Latvian conductor’s strengths rest in his ability to reveal the finer aspects of any score. Such an approach works well in late-nineteenth and twentieth-century repertoire. His direction of the music of Shostakovich and Mahler consistently offers surprises, and he has a knack for crafting the mellifluous lines of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and ballet music into elegant quasi-vocal shapes. But when Nelsons applies the same techniques to Beethoven, the result can come across as tedious.

Beethoven’s symphonies are not written with the same textural intricacies that one can find in music written even half a century later. Some wind figures–especially passages for the brass—are used primarily for sharp accents and bold conclusions. And the energy Beethoven packed into each movement requires swift direction for the music to come across convincingly.

Nelsons’ secure baton technique was well suited to the outer movements of the Fourth Symphony, where his quick tempos brought a sense of urgency. The rollicking Minuet was a Scherzo in all but name, though Nelsons lingered in the Trio, coaxing warm and beautifully arched woodwind phrases.

But elsewhere, his keen eye to each musical element tended to rob the music of much of its power. In the second movement, he shaped the themes with a slight rubato touch, and though the woodwind parts flowered, the line lacked a clear sense of direction. The only place where Nelsons’ meticulous lead paid dividends was in the symphony’s slow introduction, which took on an elemental mystery that looked ahead to the opening bars of Mahler’s First Symphony.

His version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which came after intermission, was even more problematic.

With this time-tested warhorse, Beethoven set the standard for teleological structure. Yet Friday’s performance failed to maintain its palpable tension through to conclusion.

The opening movement, with its sweeping tempo, sinuous lines, and additional weight and darkness in the exposition repeat, suggested that this would be an engaging delivery. But the inner movements lost their forward momentum as Nelsons drew out every element written on the page. In the second movement, the conductor worked in the music’s background as if it were a lush garden, directing each subtle woodwind attack, shaping the sudden crescendos with quick hand gestures, and quizzically pointing out a single soft violin pizzicato that accompanies the long—and searchingly played—cello melody. As interesting as these elements may be, they did not yield a revelatory reading, and the overall flow tended to get bogged down without the big picture ever coming into focus.

Nelsons also micro-managed the Scherzo, and the theme, as a result, failed to lift off. The highlight of the afternoon was the finale, which exploded onto the scene with brassy fanfare and rapid tempo. But as the suspense was absent in the previous movements, its bracing strains felt as if they came out of nowhere, a grand finale for a drama only partially realized.

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

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