With a slew of award-winning albums, including their recent Shostakovich Four and Eleven, which won Limelight’s 2018 Recording of the Year, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons are riding high at the moment. Their all-Strauss program at Carnegie Hall was an attractive one: a first half top and tailing of Capriccio with Renée Fleming to deliver the final aria, followed by Also Sprach Zarathustra, one of the master’s most satisfying tone poems dating from 45 years previously. It also backed up the favourable impression garnered from discs of an exemplary ensemble with an enviable sound and an alert, commanding maestro.
Renée Fleming with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Chris Lee
Dating from the early 1940s, Strauss’s final opera is one of his most intimate utterances. A single-act meditation on the age-old question of which is most important in opera, the words or the music, it begins with a string sextet, the musical gift of the composer Flamand, one of the Countess Madeleine’s pair of rival lovers. Ten minutes in duration, it functions as the opera’s overture and made the perfect curtain opener, the six players (violinists Tamara Smirnova and Haldan Martinson, violists Steven Ansell and Cathy Basrak, and cellists Blaise Déjardin and Adam Esbensen) lovingly shaped by Nelsons perched on a stool in front of them. The sound was deliciously transparent as the musicians tossed Strauss’s insistent five-note theme back-and-forth in an endlessly inventive musical fantasia. Although ostensibly set in Paris, Nelsons and his players caught that wistful, almost Schubertian quality in the music that speaks so eloquently of Vienna and a nostalgia for a time that will not come again.
Now for the whinge. Having come up with such a satisfying first half, why shatter the mood with the hiatus of bringing on the entire rest of the orchestra, especially since erecting the conductor’s podium proved a right old palaver? Surely, the sextet could have been played in front of the other players? As it was, the ensuing raucous tune-up put paid to any sense of lingering calm and the opera’s final scene had to start building atmosphere from scratch.
Fortunately, Nelsons and his orchestra had the measure of Strauss’s ravishing ‘moonlight music’, the impressive horn solo (James Sommerville) leading into a rumination on full strings of sumptuous smoothness. Fleming did an exemplary job of acting her way through what felt like a five-minute intro, her body language conveying the tricky romantic choice she must make by 11 o’clock the following day.
Countess Madeleine was one of her signature role, and the voice has lost little of its plushness or ability to spin a long Straussian phrase. The sonnet, sung within the closing aria, was especially thoughtfully conveyed, every word weighed and carefully placed. Nelsons shaded it all most naturally, ensuring his singer was never lost in the flood, yet giving the orchestra its head when necessary. As an encore, Fleming paid eloquent tribute to the late André Previn (who coincidentally had conducted Capriccio with the BSO). The final aria from A Streetcar Named Desire, another great Fleming role, was Previn at his most appropriately Straussian.
Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Chris Lee
If Capriccio was all intimacy and gossamer textures, Also Sprach Zarathustra furnished the BSO with an opportunity to show off its sonic gravitas. Nelsons paced the famous ‘Sunrise’ perfectly, though the electric organ sound emanating from a bank of speakers tended to be a little prominent in the mix. If, like me, you find a lot of Nietzsche’s arrogant philosophising pretty abhorrent, it’s perhaps best to sit back and enjoy Strauss’s tone poem for what it is: a brilliantly scored orchestral rhapsody contrasting music of great longing with music of considerable turbulence and a Viennese waltz thrown in to sweeten the pot.
Across its 35-minute span, the BSO imbued Strauss’s primeval yearnings with impressive weight and a melancholy momentum. The tempestuous sections, meanwhile, benefitted from a massively dark string sound shot through with carefully controlled brass (Nelsons balancing it all superlatively) and flecked with burnished woodwind. At times rising from the stygian depths, at others, brimming with sensuous pleasure, the BSO strings were on terrific form, the conductor’s ability to bring out orchestral detail no matter the volume a notable strength.
That waltz was nicely sweetened but never saccharine (though the solo violin had the odd hairy moment), and the final cataclysmic descent into the Night Wanderer’s Song built to a beautifully mysterious ending. Beautifully programmed, finely executed, it’s good to see an orchestra live up to great expectations.