With a program change, Nelsons and BSO serve up rich if familiar Strauss

April 22, 2022 at 11:33 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Andris Nelsons conducted the BSO in an all-Strauss programs Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Aram Boghosian

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s all-Strauss program Thursday night promised to be one of the season’s highlights.

But after soprano Lise Davidsen withdrew from her anticipated single-night performance due to illness, Andris Nelsons replaced the scheduled Four Last Songs with the Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten, which was already slated for this weekend. The only cavil with the program was that he conducted the same work with the BSO earlier this season.

Nelsons’ season-long exploration of Strauss’s orchestral music— coinciding with an upcoming recording—has led to the same works being performed with puzzling frequency. Till Eulenspiegel and the Symphonia Domestica, which bookended Thursday’s concert, were heard as recently as 2019. That same year also featured Nelsons leading An Alpine Symphony for the second time. He conducts the score next week and again this coming November.

There’s more to Strauss’s oeuvre than these usual standards. Nelsons consistently finds a spiritual depth little explored in the composer’s music. So why not turn those interpretive insights onto the overlooked early symphonies, or bring renewed attention to Aus Italien, which the BSO hasn’t performed since 1914?

Nelsons nonetheless found the drama and searching expression in each work on Thursday night.

The Symphonia Domestica concerns a day in the life of Strauss, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, and their infant son Franz. In true Straussian fashion, different themes convey the full, complicated nuances of each personality. The composer portrays himself as laid back yet studious in daily work. Brisk figures reveal Pauline to be a self-assured but fiery presence. The couple argues with equal fervor, played out through an angular fugue. But young Franz, portrayed by the oboe d’amore, ultimately unites the two in love.

Nelsons views the tone poem as a study in familial humor and compassion. The jovial opening themes took on impish glee in the Scherzo. Woodwinds cooed in the cradle song, while Alexander Velinzon’s solo violin conveyed the warmth of the doting parents. In the Adagio, the strings captured all the tenderness of the couple’s embrace.

The conductor navigated the mercurial shifts in tempo and texture with a clear sense of where the music was going. The fugue coursed with passionate intensity before settling into the soulful reconciliation that follows. Nelsons and the musicians found the utter joy of the closing bars.

The Symphonic Fantasy offered lush complement. Teaming with melody, the twenty-minute score explores a serenity far removed from the opera’s labyrinthine plot.

This music is tailor-made for Nelsons, who led with keen attention to phrasing and balance. He built the tension slowly, like a spring winding in a tight coil. Yet his sense of grandeur in the sweeping passages highlighted rich details. The strings provided a plush cushion for trumpeter Thomas Rolfs to loft a beaming solo overhead. Nelsons coaxed powerful crescendos and fortes from the rest of the ensemble in all the right moments.

The conductor did the same with Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss’s vivid portrayal of a jolly but malign trickster.

Nelsons explored the music’s humor to high comic effect. Richard Sebring’s French horn theme set the stage for the merriment to come. Brass and woodwind lines tittered; strings took on pompous authority when portraying the academics, doublespeak and all.

Yet Nelsons also revealed a surprising humanity from this score. The execution scene, rendered with resonant force, realized the character’s fear of death. But the buoyant concluding bars, taken at brisk tempo, suggested that good pranks live long in memory.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday at Symphony Hall. bso.org

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