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Concert Review

Fleming highlights a soaring evening of Strauss with Nelsons, Boston Symphony

March 16, 2019
By Aaron Keebaugh
Renee Fleming performed music from Richard Strauss's "Capriccio" with Andris Nelsons learning and Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott

Renée Fleming performed music from Richard Strauss’s “Capriccio” with Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott

In the final scene of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, Countess Madeleine must choose between the writer Olivier and the composer Flamand. The feelings she shares with the two men, however, play out symbolically as a contest between poetry and music. As the Countess sings, she realizes that the two art forms intertwine into a serene whole where neither reigns supreme.

When soprano Renée Fleming sang the scene with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under direction of Andris Nelsons at Symphony Hall Thursday night, Strauss’s music seemed to offer subtle resolution to the timeless question over which is the superior art.

Strauss operas have been specialties for both Nelsons and Fleming. Two seasons ago, LINK the Latvian conductor led the BSO in a concert performance of Der Rosenkavalier, with Fleming making one of her final appearances as the Marschallin, one of her signature roles. Thursday’s performance of the final scene of Capriccio recalled the emotional sweetness of that memorable evening.

Though scored in the composer’s usual lush style, the final moments of Capriccio have the spare intimacy of a Mozart Adagio. With her pure-toned voice, Fleming rendered Strauss’s lines with the emotional immediacy of a lieder singer.

Her soprano has lost much of its original luster and weight, but her voice remains perfectly suited to the warmth and humanity conveyed in the scene. Throughout, Fleming sensitively portrayed the Countess’s pent-up conflict as she pined for both men. Her high notes floated over Strauss’s thick orchestration while conveying a sense of deep longing. The final question was left unresolved in her final strains, where she proclaimed that it is impossible to choose between the similar delicacies of words and melody.

But Nelsons’ fluent direction suggested that music was indeed the master. The orchestra responded beautifully to his waving gestures. The soft attacks and silky phrases the conductor conjured carried sweet sadness, and the solo passages shimmered. Richard Sebring’s radiant French horn solo in the Moonlight Music set a particularly seductive scene.

The Sextet from Capriccio, which opened Thursday’s program, foreshadowed the charm and elegance to come. Violinists Tamara Smirnova and Haldan Martinson, violists Steven Ansell and Cathy Basrak, and cellists Blaise Déjardin and Adam Esbensen delivered this brief score with velvety ensemble.

Thursday’s concert was dedicated to the memory of André Previn, who died in last month at the age of 89. With Nelsons leading the orchestra, Fleming offered as an encore “I can smell the sea air” from Previn’s 1995 opera A Streetcar Named Desire (the role of Blanche DuBois was written for her). Here, Fleming was a captivating musical presence, her vocal line swelling with tender warmth in a heartfelt tribute to the beloved conductor, composer, and pianist.

After intermission, Nelsons led a dramatic account of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Critics have long derided Strauss for his surfacey treatment of Nietzsche’s ideas. Yet this popular tone poem shows the composer wrestling intently with the philosopher’s concepts of strength, instinct, and personal renewal.

The work’s ending still perplexes listeners and Strauss aficionados alike. As flutes sound out serene B-major chords over thumping Cs in the basses and cellos, the unresolved dissonance seems to suggest that the gulf between mankind and nature—or mankind and the Übermensch—is too great to ever cross.

Nelsons’ bold reading made such conflict felt as much as heard. He deftly navigated Strauss’s wildly shifting textures, towering musical peaks, and passages of chamber-like refinement. His broad tempo in “The Afterwordly” resulted in phrases of dark mystery. The brief quotes of the Magnificat, played by the organ, brought moments of hushed solemnity.

Nelsons also lingered in the pensive fugue of “On Science.” But he gradually built the intensity as the music progressed, the culminating statement of the opening motive in “The Convalescent” resonating with earth-shaking power.

As is often the case with Nelsons’ performances, details were aplenty. Principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs pealed out the punishing high Cs in the build up to the “Dance Song,” where concertmaster Tamara Smirnova tossed off her double stops with Viennese lilt and robust vitality. Like Nietzsche’s poetic text, Strauss’s music ultimately conveys the inextinguishable will of life.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Tuesday at Carnegie Hall. carnegiehall.org

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