The main takeaway from this album is the excellent, exciting Sibelius performance, a demonstration of just how brilliant a partnership Nelsons and the BSO are, now, when at their collective best.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) has lost no time turning out its first album under new music director Andris Nelsons. Drawn from live recordings of a pair of Nelsons’ engagements in Boston last fall (in September and November), the disc, out on the orchestra’s in-house label, BSO Classics, features Sibelius’s Symphony no. 2 and Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser.
It may be a bit simplistic to say that Nelsons, as a Latvian native, has some special insight into Sibelius’s singular sound world. It’s clear, though, that he identifies closely with the music of his Finnish neighbor and here he’s gotten the BSO – an ensemble with its own long, rich Sibelius history – to deliver a compelling vision of it.
Nelsons’ performance is more than simply a run-through of a familiar entry in the symphonic canon. He manages to convey a dark, mysterious character throughout the piece, even, at times, in the triumphant finale. The first movement broods: this may be a landscape dappled with sunlight, but thunder is always rumbling not far off. So, too, the big climaxes of the episodic, Tchaikovsky-ian, slow movement benefit from a remarkably clear ensemble balance. The fast sections of the third movement scherzo are as lickety-split as they come, but Nelsons also manages to relax and indulge in the luxurious, lyrical interludes. And the finale, with its soaring hymn-like main tune, unfolds none too slowly, and that’s good: the last thing a new recording of this well-worn score needs is to drag. In fact, Nelsons’ tempos throughout this performance are just about perfectly judged – there are a couple of spots in the second movement where a hair’s-breadth luftpause or accelerando might have lent a bit more weight to this gesture or that, but these are really the smallest of quibbles. The BSO plays with great tone and a wonderful responsiveness to Nelsons’ leading.
They do that last perhaps too well in the Overture to Tannhäuser, which opens the disc. Yes, this is a beautiful-sounding reading. Reviewing the live performance last September, I wrote of the sound Nelsons got out of the BSO being “plush, smooth, and rich, like molten chocolate.” On disc, it still is. But it’s also still lacking momentum, drama, and, until the last couple of minutes, any real sense of excitement. In that same review, I wrote that I thought Nelsons’ sluggish tempos turned the piece – especially the great, outer “Pilgrim’s Hymn” – into a “stultifying caricature of itself.” Getting to rehear it now, it’s perhaps a bit less stultifying than I remembered, but I stand by my earlier criticism and have more to add.
The most pressing is that this performance reveals Nelsons’ worst tendency as a conductor, namely a propensity for micromanaging. Listen to the swells around rehearsal letter B. I can’t recall a recording in which they sound more deliberate and lifeless. The whole of the fast, central part of the overture suffers from this approach. It’s sonically beautiful – Malcolm Lowe turns in some lovely solos, and the BSO brass and winds have rarely sounded creamier – but, in terms of sheer sensuousness, this is just about the dullest bacchanal on record. The less said about the aforementioned plodding “Pilgrim’s Hymn,” the better. Suffice it to say that the mighty trombone entrance towards the beginning of the Overture seems more concerned with beauty of tone than with animating the musical drama, a characteristic that neatly sums up this performance.
Of course, you’re probably not going to get this recording just for the Wagner and it’s worth noting that many of the great conductor/orchestra pairings of the last half-century or so – Karajan and Abbado in Berlin; Solti in Chicago; Bernstein, Boulez, and Masur in New York, to name just a few – had their share of misses like Nelsons’ Tannhäuser. The main takeaway from this album is the excellent, exciting Sibelius performance, a demonstration of just how brilliant a partnership Nelsons and the BSO are, now, when at their collective best. There’s no reason to doubt that, in five or seven more years, the quality of Nelsons’ interpretations should be consistently at the level of his Sibelius Two and, so long as he plants some roots in Boston and doesn’t skip off to other pastures, that’s something worth celebrating.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.