[Update, May 2013: And it's official: Andris Nelsons will be the new music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, starting with the 2014-15 season.]
[UPDATE: Oestreich's review in the NYT. He seems to have heard the same attention to inner detail that I did, but calls this a defect rather than a virtue. With respect, I disagree, and would argue that Mahler's music calls for the approach that Nelsons took. But it's reassuring to know that he heard some of the same things I did, even if he had a different assessment of them.]
Carnegie was almost full tonight. Maybe for Mahler (who packs houses here in Gotham). Or maybe for the buzz. Almost every news article on Levine’s departure from the BSO and the search for a new music director mentioned Nelsons and this concert. BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe seemed to fan the flames of speculation even as he threw water on them; he cautioned us not to view every guest conductor stint as an audition, yet also said he didn’t want to “jinx” the Nelsons concert and hoped the orchestra and conductor would get along. Was this going to be a repeat of November 14, 1943? Or was Volpe just doing what any good manager would do–build up the buzz without committing to anything?
I wondered how much rehearsal time Nelsons had with the orchestra, which he had never met before. This week Nelsons was busy conducting at the Met on Tuesday and Friday. Meanwhile the BSO gave a Tuesday concert in Carnegie with Marcelo Lehninger and a Wednesday concert with Roberto Abbado. Abbado and Lehninger had already completed three-concert runs of their respective Carnegie Hall programs in Boston, but Nelsons didn’t have that luxury. Whatever the circumstances, Nelsons almost certainly didn’t have much time to put his personal stamp on this performance–only heightening the anticipation.
I don’t have time to edit this down; I’ll just jot down my thoughts and beg indulgence for any long-windedness or inapt phrases. The bottom line is that this was a marvelous performance, eschewing transparency and purity of sound in exchange for tension, power, and a real richness and diversity of timbre. At no point did I feel that Nelsons was trying to foist upon us a radically new interpretation of the work; instead, I heard unusually committed and characterful playing, endowing all the strands of Mahler’s intricate counterpoint–not just the melodic line–with an intensity that I found deeply moving.
Nelsons began the work almost nonchalantly. I’ve heard some performances that coax great depth out of the strings, even in the half-voiced murmurs which open the first movement; not here. Out of this, the first, searing climax built up impressively, and here one of the differences between Nelsons and Levine’s approaches became apparent: Nelsons was more inclined to let the brasses (especially the trumpets) and timpani rip at full volume, almost but never quite to the point of being overbalanced. The effect was hair-raising. (It may have partly been where I sat, but not entirely.) Some of the first few transitions (where Mahler hands off the line to different instruments) were abrupt, but soon they were all beautifully molded, and this became a consistent virtue of the performance. Another such virtue was bite and energy in the inner voices. Some approach Mahler’s intricate counterpoint by thinning out and clarifying the textures; Nelsons and the BSO took a more satisfying approach of endowing the inner voices with soloistic color and phrasing. Yet this attention to phrasing never broke up the line or descended to fussy point-making; it all seemed natural.
At the same time Nelsons did not dawdle. In his recordings, Bernstein heightened the intensity by stretching out climaxes and cadences, creating immense tension. Nelsons eschewed such an approach; he certainly created an ebb and flow of great tension, but in a narrower range of tempi. This movement can seem like an onslaught of massive, incoherent waves of sound, one after the other, but Nelsons sustained its coherence and momentum. He also kept power in reserve; the intermediate climaxes were not as heaven-storming as in other performances, but the loudest one–where the trombones and timpani blast out the trochaic motto theme–was as brutal as any. (One sign of this approach was that the bass drum was reticent in contrast to the timpani.) Afterward, in the coda, Nelsons coaxed a lovely pianissimo out of the brasses supporting the violin solo.
A few bars into the second movement, Nelsons took the violins’ three pickup notes pesante–a rustic effect heard in the very first recording, with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1938. Nelsons emphasized this rustic quality, repeatedly stamping, swinging his arms about, and lunging toward string sections to impart a real schwung to the first ländler. In the second ländler, Nelsons took an unusually fast tempo, but it never lapsed into garbled incoherence; he took care to pull the phrases across the bar lines. The horns spat out their sixteenth notes rather than rendering them precisely; throughout the movement the section contributed some wonderfully vivid, coarse sounds. But in the quieter sections, Nelsons lavished all the rubato he had eschewed in the first movement, caressing each phrase. Some might have found this heavy-handed; I thought it flowed beautifully.
The horns played it up again in the third movement, the Rondo-Burleske. In the slower second section, Thomas Rolfs’ trumpet playing was gorgeous. No tinny laser beam here; instead, a rich tone with an expressive yet carefully controlled vibrato. After the clarinet interjection brings this episode to an end, a plaintive, quiet oboe solo is answered repeatedly by snarling muted brasses; here the stark contrast in color and mood was unusually striking. With the resumption of the Rondo, the frantic, teeming textures grew in intensity as Nelsons and the orchestra sped toward the finish line.
In the first few measures of the finale, the violins dug into their strings and created a richly expressive, warm tone. After that first gesture, Nelsons resisted the urge to wring intensity out of every bar; trusting in that string tone, he kept the tempo flowing and the volume relatively restrained during the first statement of the theme. Transitions here–such as when the strings fall away and the contrabassoon enters–were executed with unusual subtlety. Even in the fortissimo passages, the strings kept that vocal quality, too often given a harsh, edgy treble on recordings. Only in this movement’s climaxes did the bass drum make a powerful impact; again, Nelsons held power in reserve. And the final pages showed Nelsons’ ability to shape a beautiful pianissimo, as quiet as a whisper yet with enough presence and solidity of tone to reach the back of the hall. All the poignancy inherent in the music was realized in this performance.
Nelsons has an odd physical manner of conducting. He often has his knees bent, his arms extended out of him and also bent, and his shoulders slightly hunched over, baton in the right hand. In fast, loud passages his whole body bounces to the beat; a few times he was literally hopping on the podium. On the other hand, in cantabile moments he puts his baton aside in his left hand and sweeps his arms over the orchestra. More importantly, Nelsons showed his skill at giving ‘click’ beats with the slightest flick of the wrist, and signaling an allargando without pedantically beating it out–transitions were beautifully managed, and that’s a tricky feat in Mahler’s kaleidoscopic orchestral textures. (In too many Mahler performances, pedal points underpinning the counterpoint get cut off abruptly as a phrase ends, giving the impression of a bad tape splice.) Most of all, the intensity was always there, without descending into gyrations performed for the benefit of the audience.
There were a few clams in the brasses, and one place in the third movement where the strings almost lost touch with each other. But counting coup on these sorts of things is beside the point; this work is so difficult that a perfect live performance is practically impossible. (I’ve heard the timpanists of the Berlin Philharmonic make a wrong entrance in the second movement that threatened to derail everything.) Tonight the playing may not have been as clean, limpid, or note-perfect as some might like, but any errors were very few, and more than outweighed by the timbral variety and emotional intensity of the playing.
And what did the orchestra think? I’m not privy to any information here, but I can say this: I’ve seen the BSO play for many conductors, and it seems obvious when they’re unenthused. Tonight, Nelsons got a few waving bows as he came on, but at the end of the performance, even the back stands were either waving their bows or applauding him–something I’ve only seen them do for Haitink and Dutoit. When he came out for the second curtain call, the orchestra refused to rise, and sat there applauding him, until he took a solo bow. By this time the audience was on its feet. (Yes, some were heading for the exits, but that’s the usual appalling behavior of a New York audience; as Edith Wharton said, “Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”)
Is Nelsons the heir apparent? No idea. I’ve discussed this in an earlier post; my thinking is that the BSO should have someone who can not only deliver great performances of the standard repertory, but also push the orchestra into new creative directions and build a more direct relationship with the community. I don’t think Nelsons is that person. But should he be invited back often? Should he record Mahler’s Ninth soon? Should we be looking out for his performances? Absolutely.