BSO’s retooled season finale reaches the summit with epic Strauss, delightful Saint-Saëns

April 29, 2022 at 12:10 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Boston Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Blaise Déjardin performed Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 with Andris Nelsons and the BSO Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Aram Boghosian

For the second time in two weeks, a cancellation upended a Boston Symphony Orchestra program. Last week, it was Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen who withdrew due to illness. This time, the German soprano Marlis Petersen pulled out, citing COVID-related travel restrictions. As a result, the orchestra’s originally-scheduled all-Richard Strauss season finale with music director Andris Nelsons became something a shade different.

Not that Strauss wasn’t still the focus of Thursday night’s program. He was there, both at his most grandiloquent – An Alpine Symphony – and more reserved: “Dreaming by the Fireside” from the Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo, iridescently played by the BSO. But instead of Petersen singing the final scene from Salome, the orchestra presented Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1.

Though a less blazingly theatrical piece, this choice proved, ultimately, a smart one. Not only did BSO principal cellist Blaise Déjardin get to make his solo concerto debut with the orchestra, but the Saint-Saëns offered a welcome contrast to some of Strauss’s lushest fare.

Though stylistically and temperamentally very different, the two composers hold more than a few characteristics in common. Both were preternaturally gifted and prolific, as well as brilliant orchestrators. Additionally, both esteemed the Apollonian purity of Classicism, particularly the music of Mozart (ironically, of course, both wrote some of the repertoire’s greatest program music).

To be sure, the First Cello Concerto is one of Saint-Saëns’ most refreshingly direct scores. Completed in 1872, it recasts the normal three-movement form into a single, extended section. Though not strictly following the Lisztian practice of thematic transformation, the piece does subtly develop a number of related melodic ideas across a variety of musical contexts.

In its own way the concerto might be heard as an embodiment of Shakespeare’s observation that “brevity is the soul of wit.” The music’s themes transmute with chameleon-like impishness: playful, soulful, soaring. Though, technically, not excessively demanding (at least by the standards of the day), the solo writing nonetheless showcases the cello brilliantly and its tunes charm the ear. What more might one desire?

Not very much judging from Thursday night’s traversal. This was a performance of vigor and passion, Déjardin spinning out the concerto’s florid passagework with snapping rhythmic precision and excellent projection. Additionally, the cellist’s feel for the music’s discreet shifts of character was conspicuously on point.

Nelsons drew an accompaniment from the BSO that was a model of collegiality: full-bodied in tone yet flexibly phrased, naturally flowing and carefully balanced (Déjardin’s solos were never covered). This, in fact, was one of the most satisfying performances the orchestra has presented at Symphony Hall all season.

So was their take on An Alpine Symphony. Premiered in 1915, Strauss’s fifty-minute-long tone poem depicts a day spent hiking through his beloved Alps. Regardless of how much one reads into the score’s program or doesn’t—before finalizing the title, Strauss considered calling the piece The Antichrist, after Nietzsche—this is music of astonishing compositional invention and instrumental ingenuity.

That so many of its details spoke with such force on Thursday is a testament to Nelsons’ growing command of the music and the BSO’s comfortability with the same. In late-Romantic repertoire Nelsons is sometimes his own worst enemy, getting sidetracked by minutiae.

Last night, though, he and the BSO offered an interpretation of the Alpine Symphony that was intent on not trying to do too much. As a result, the music spoke with beguiling cogency.

The murky “Night” sequences glowed mysteriously. Its climaxes—the blazing “Sunrise,” sparkling “Waterfall,” and resplendent “Summit”—rightly thrilled. The “Thunderstorm” was visceral. At the same time, the scattered moments of quiet—a searching “Elegy,” tense “Calm Before the Storm,” and enchanting “Ausklang”—were riveting.

Throughout, balances were exquisite: this was as transparent and chamber-like an Alpine Symphony as they come. Yes, the big moments were bold, and the orchestra’s brass section held nothing back (with a couple cracks in the stratospheric peregrinations).Yet, regardless of the music’s busyness, Thursday’s was a reading in which fore-, mid-, and background lines all fell into place.

Accordingly, there was a true sense of wonder in the BSO’s performance: for all its bombast, the Alpine Symphony came together, on Thursday, on its own, purely musical, terms. That’s no small accomplishment. In this context, too, Nelsons could take moments to periodically linger and enjoy the view (as he did in the “Wandering by the Brook” section) without losing sense of the score’s larger picture.

Thursday’s audience responded to it all with a mighty ovation. This only grew in fervor as the season’s retirees took solo bows. Between them, cellists Martha Babcock and Sato Knudsen, contrabassoonist Gregg Henegar, and violinist Bo Youp Hwang boast an astounding 163 years of BSO experience. They will be missed.

The program repeats at 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall.

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