Familiar program pays dividends with violinist’s rousing BSO debut

February 4, 2024 at 11:58 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Randall Goosby performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with Andris Nelsons leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra Saturday night. Photo: Robert Torres

Sometimes tried and true is best. So it proved Saturday evening, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons demonstrated that the old overture-concerto-symphony programming format still has legs.

That all concerned proved as much with a couple of evergreens, Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony (No 5), plus an obscurity by Ethel Smyth makes the accomplishment all the more notable.

Between those three works, though, there was plenty of stylistic variety to tease the ear—and enough shared commonalities to tie everything together.

For instance, this was a triptych that offered storminess aplenty, though the most vigorous exhibitions of that came in the Mendelssohn and Smyth.

The Overture to the latter’s opera The Wreckers dates from 1904. That work’s setting in an oppressive English coastal village drew music from Smyth’s pen that’s at once jaunty, unsettling, and majestic.

On Saturday, Nelsons led a reading of this somewhat discursive opus that was marked by stylistic assurance and lean textures. Though the culminating hymn unfolded a bit sluggishly and the brass tended to be too loud, the BSO’s woodwind section shone during the Overture’s central lyrical episode.

Over-aggressive brasses also marred balances in the first movement of the Mendelssohn and its Allegro con fuoco section felt ponderous and deliberate. Otherwise, Nelsons’ was a solid, sometimes truly invigorating, account of this 1830 effort—as the lady behind me who repeatedly hummed along to the finale’s snatches of Martin Luther’s hymn “Ein’ feste Burg” might attest.

The brass section excepted, the orchestra’s dynamic range was huge: the strings’ repetitions of the “Dresden Amen” shimmered expectantly. The second movement snapped crisply, the droll woodwind lines during its Trio unfurling fluently. While there were some indistinct rhythms in the Andante’s accompaniment, that movement’s violin melody sang soulfully.

As when they last played the Fifth Symphony in Boston in 2019, the BSO offered Christopher Hogwood’s 2009 critical edition of the score, with its inclusion of a bridge between the third and fourth movements that the composer omitted before the work’s 1832 premiere. Like then, Mendelssohn’s original edit remains the correct one; some unsettled entrances Saturday seemed to underline the point.

Despite those—and Nelsons’ occasionally breathless phrasing in the Allegro vivace—the night’s finale offered an abundance of rhythmic energy and a cathartic statement of the final chorale.

Tying together the Mendelssohn and Smyth was Bruch’s First Concerto, which featured the BSO debut of Randall Goosby. Now 27, Goosby is a violinist whose immense technical arsenal is matched by a soaring tone and preternatural musical intelligence.

That combination resulted in a rousing interpretation of this favorite. Though occasionally spacious, the Prelude soared, Goosby spinning out its lines with sweetness and judicious vibrato. The purity of his playing in the Adagio was likewise captivating: at once unsentimental but rich and heartfelt.

The inwardness of Goosby’s rendition of the latter resulted in an accompaniment from Nelsons and the BSO that was commendable for its delicacy and pristine focus. While the ensemble let rip in its boisterous refrains during the finale, they never covered the soloist.

Rather, Goosby dispatched his part with biting rhythmic clarity and, in that movement’s lovely second subject, burnished warmth.

Those qualities, plus loads of character, also marked his encore of Coleridge Taylor Perkinson’s funky Louisiana Blues Strut, a selection that’s tried and true on its own merits—and rightly brought down the house.

Karina Canellakis conducts the BSO in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major with Alisa Weilerstein 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Symphony Hall. bso.org

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