Nelsons, Mutter and BSO team up for grand night of Dvořák at Tanglewood
The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s all-Dvořák program at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Shed Friday night may have looked safe on the surface, but it proved to be rich in musical rewards and a triumph for Andris Nelsons in his first festival appearance as music director designate.
The biggest draw of the evening was Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, which featured Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist.
Mutter has almost made it a personal mission to give this work as many hearings as possible. Friday night was her second performance of the work with the BSO in five months, having played it this past February under the baton of Manfred Honeck.
The work doesn’t have the show-stopping power of the Tchaikovsky and Brahms concertos. But it’s hard to see why, at least with the opening movement, which featured Mutter in some dazzling pyrotechnics that twist and turn their way up to the instrument’s nervous heights. Moreover, this concerto abounds with charming folk lyricism, and it is music that Mutter plays in grand style.
Whereas Honeck, in the February performance, kept tight reins on the tempo, Nelsons followed Mutter’s interpretation with every turn. The violinist makes generous use of portamenti and rubato, which, together, stretched her melodies beyond their usual meter. This was especially the case with the second movement, where Nelsons wove a feathery bed of orchestral accompaniment. He led the dancelike finale with crisp energy.
The evening began with a shimmering performance of The Noonday Witch, Op. 108. The vexing story behind this symphonic poem, based on a folk verse by Karel Jaromír Erben, tells of a mother who tries to calm her naughty son by threatening to summon the Noon Witch to take him away. But when the witch appears, the mother does everything she can to protect her child. She does so to a fault and smothers him to death by accident. With gestures both deliberate and delicate, Nelsons led a sensitive reading with an eye to the finer details of the score. The BSO gave the stirring scherzo and the lively cross rhythms at the heart of this score the romping energy of a village band.
After intermission, Nelsons led a sparkling rendition of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. A departure from the composer’s more Brahmsian Seventh Symphony, the Eighth is a marvel of orchestration and features melodies that are awash with the modal, folk-influenced sonorities so integral to the composer’s nationalist style.
Nelsons’ reading pulled thick textures and vivid colors from the ensemble, which swelled with sounds of near-Wagnerian intensity in the first and second movements. For the waltz-like third, Nelsons led with waving gestures and gentle flicks of the wrist as if to caress the finely-hewn phrases from the winds and strings.
In the finale, Nelsons leaned back on the tempo, emphasizing the “ma non troppo” of the movement’s marked Allegro to craft rounded phrases from the cellos. He opened the throttle for the movement’s frenzied passages, and the brasses added stentorian power when called upon.