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Wagner, Tannhäuser Overture. Sibelius, Symphony No. 2 – the BSO’s first recording under Andris Nelsons

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Nelson's debut recording with the BSO

Nelson’s debut recording with the BSO

Wagner, Tannhäuser Overture. Sibelius, Symphony No. 2 • Andris Nelsons, cond; Boston Symphony Orchestra •  BSO Classics 1401 (61:12) Live: Boston 9/27/14(W); 11/6-11/14(S)

I don’t think I have heard the Boston Symphony sound this full and deep since Koussevitzky. This CD inaugurates Andris Nelsons’ era at the helm of the BSO and signals a reinforcement of the orchestra’s considerable strengths in the more brooding side of the continental repertory.

The BSO has gone through several transformations in my lifetime. Charles Munch was Music Director, when I was a teenager, and the Boston Symphony was notable for its vivid woodwinds, transparent Francophone sonorities and a certain fiery lightness of touch. When Erich Leinsdorf took on the post in 1962, the BSO sonority darkened into an unsentimental, generalized thickness. Leinsdorf was steeped in the Germanic repertory but approached it in a clipped, efficiency-expert mode. This was the era just emerging from Toscanini’s shadow, and conductors from Szell to Steinberg tended to conduct fermatas as if they were dog-sneezes.

The Steinberg regime, like Levine’s, was a sort of interregnum, sputtering along due to age and health issues. The lengthy Ozawa directorship, which followed, restored the Munch transparency but fell after a time into unimaginative routine. Ozawa was a colorist and usually most effective in French and Russian music. But he was not expansive in the German manner.

As the years passed, Ozawa’s phrasing became surprisingly clipped and uninvolved. And the orchestra sounded for decades almost inappropriate in Bruckner, Strauss and Wagner. Were it not for Colin Davis during those years, the BSO might have lost its touch its touch with Sibelius, as well. Ozawa did not conduct Sibelius—nor Bruckner, either, that I am aware.1

This has all changed. Andris Nelsons may be from Latvia, but the impressive weight and brooding darkness he creates with the orchestra here are Teutonic and then some. Sir Thomas Beecham once made a famous remark about conductors: They are either “accelerando,” or “ritardando.” Well, there is no question here. The Boston Symphony has found its Furtwängler. And we have before our ears magical Wagner and rich brooding Sibelius. It will remain to be seen what defects, if any, emerge as byproduct of these virtues. In the meantime, this CD is as convincing an example as one could wish of an American orchestra going head to head with the German tradition and emerging proudly.

The trick with Wagner is always how to achieve just enough seams in the ideal of “seamless melody” to keep the music moving forward, and then sufficient transparency to provide a window on that motion. It is easy for Wagner’s music to become heavy and thick with syrup turned to lava. Andris Nelsons avoids that here in the Tannhäuser overture. The bass sonorities of the orchestra resonate impressively in this recording, but the filigree on top is beautifully clear. I am not certain that any conductor can entirely succeed with Wagner’s lurching string accompaniment to the horns at the beginning of the overture. It always sounds to me like an awkward teenage driver starting out in the wrong gear. (No composer since has tried this type of accompaniment, that I am aware!) When the chorale returns near the end, the violin support involves much faster and more effective passagework, and the effect is no longer a distraction from the music’s essential nobility. Be that as it may, Nelsons is immensely effective in balancing the orchestra richly from the bottom-up and yet still retaining the music’s essential flow and transparency.

The Second Symphony of Sibelius responds to many approaches, so long as they are consistent. James Levine recorded a blistering, white-hot, version with the Berlin Philharmonic. Leif Segerstam set it down for Chandos with the Danish Radio Orchestra, featuring the sort of refinements you normally associate with clear waters in the Sixth Symphony. Szell conducted it as though it were by Hindemith. Andris Nelsons hears it as though it were Parsifal.

Good as the brass explosions are, it is the quieter music which stays with you in this performance: the repeated falling away into eeriness in the slow movement….the heartfelt chorale interlude in the finale, breath-holdingly sad….the crazed rotating arpeggios rising through the final processional, like agitated tigers pacing their cages. I’ve never heard it better played.

This is a remarkable orchestra, heard at its best. Boston may have found at last a Music Director who will remind us that the city was once known as America’s “Athens of  the North.”

  1. Ozawa did in fact conduct Bruckner every now and then. I heard him in Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony, and it was surprisingly satisfying, largely because he let the brass luxuriate in the huge open sound Bruckner and Symphony Hall made for them.—Ed.

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