Nelsons, BSO lead off 2022 with brilliant Prokofiev, Hahn’s revelatory Mozart

January 7, 2022 at 11:19 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Hilary Hahn performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with Andris Nelsons leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Michael Blanchard

Neither the Omicron variant nor the threat of the season’s first snowstorm derailed the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s post-New Year’s return to the stage. No, indeed: after its annual, five-week-long holiday-season hiatus, the ensemble was back at Symphony Hall on Thursday night, with music director Andris Nelsons leading selections by HK Gruber, Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, and Sergei Prokofiev.

Given the intensity and attention to detail that marked the BSO’s reading of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, the orchestra isn’t suffering any ill-effects from the extended break. This 1944 score is one of the 20th century’s greatest symphonies as well as a true orchestral showpiece, as Thursday’s performance reminded.

In the slow first and third movements, Nelsons drew playing of sumptuous warmth and color from his forces. The blend of the woodwinds in the opening section, for instance, was immaculate; articulations across the orchestra were faultlessly matched. The Adagio’s stratospheric melodic writing was delicately etched, while its strident climax swaggered and snapped.

At the same time, the brisk second and fourth movements hurtled forward relentlessly. The Allegro marcato’s motivic cells wanted nothing for rhythmic bite, nor did its several songful interludes lack character. In the finale, Nelsons’ snappy tempos ensured that the music’s giocoso exuberance came across clearly. As in the second movement, he also took pains here to highlight the score’s various timbral shifts.

The overall result was a thrilling, Technicolor ride, one that was impressively balanced—even in its loudest utterances—and roundly invigorating.

Conductor and orchestra brought a similar focus to Gruber’s Short Stories from the Vienna Woods. A suite drawn from his 2014 opera, Tales from the Vienna Woods, the piece is an idiosyncratic mix of playful, dour, and goofy ideas.

Its eclectic musical language might be described as Sondheim-meets-Stravinsky-by-way-of-Charles Ives, Johann Strauss, and Duke Ellington. There are numerous allusions to popular musical forms, particularly waltzes—both familiar and not—and jazz, all often highly abstracted. Gruber’s orchestral writing, discreet and waggish, is highly involved. Throughout runs an undercurrent of melancholy that’s also a hallmark of the Strauss family’s oeuvre.

Thursday’s reading of four of Short Stories’ seven movements constituted the work’s world premiere. If the “Introduction” was a hair out of balance and the concluding “Infernal Polka” overstayed its welcome, the former at least offered some beautiful instrumental combinations (particularly episodes between solo trumpet and flutes), the latter an amusing vamp figure (replete with drum kit).

Meantime, the angular “Splintered Waltzes” and texturally diffuse “In a Flash” were more clearly ironic in tone, particularly the latter’s concluding, distorted keyboard setting of a snatch of Johann Strauss’s eponymous Tales from the Vienna Woods waltz.

Between these symphonic works came the violinist Hilary Hahn playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5.

Hahn, now 42, is among the most reliably insightful and engaging artists of her generation, especially in the standard canon.

The glory of her Mozart on Thursday lay less in the violinist’s flawless technique—extraordinary though that was—than in her willingness to treat Mozart’s music as a living, breathing entity. This she did, pushing phrases, attacking subjects, exaggerating dynamics, consistently liming the dancing impetus behind the notes.

Accordingly, the concerto sounded as fresh, vital, and, frankly, folksy as ever. The outer movements—especially the finale’s alla Turca sequences—gamboled brilliantly. The Adagio, thoughtfully shaped and phrased, emerged as a radiant, yet profound, essay.

So persuasive and revelatory was this approach that one came away from Hahn’s reading hearing the Mozart Fifth Concerto as a cornerstone on which Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky later built, rather than as the lovely but inconsequential effort of a teenaged prodigy.

Nelsons, leading a reduced BSO contingent, presided over an accompaniment that was, generally, pert and responsive.

But it was Hahn who carried the day, both in the concerto (in which she played her own smartly virtuosic cadenzas) and in her invigorating encore of the Gigue from J. S. Bach’s Solo Partita in E major.

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

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment