Tuesday, September 8, 2015

CD Review: Andris Nelsons Conducts Wagner and Sibelius

By Erica Miner

In his debut CD with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, culled from live recordings, newly minted BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons (http://www.laopus.com/2015/08/tanglewood-celebrates-75-years-of.html) shows a clear love for Wagner’s early success, Tannhäuser. Nelsons not only professes to have loved the opera since the age of five when his parents took him to a performance, but also claims that said performance influenced his desire to become a conductor. Thus justice was served when Nelsons performed the opera’s overture at his very first concert as music director of the BSO. 

This fifteen-plus minutes of music gleaned from the opera is challenging for any orchestra (more so for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which then launches into almost four more hours of heavy, difficult music in the opera itself). But therein lie great musical moments that have always pleased audiences, as well as a perfect portrayal of the ideals behind the composer’s Gesamtkunstwerk, or complete work of art. 

Wagner had less regard for the technical difficulties of this overture than for the fulfillment of his Gesamtkunstwerk paradigm, but the virtuoso playing of the BSO, together with its music director’s consummate artistry, create a sublime melding of the two. Starting with the somber Andante Maestoso and transitioning seamlessly to the fiery Venusberg music, Nelsons provides an eloquent rendering. The phrasings are well defined with just the right amount of separation in the slow opening, and crisp definitions are coupled with languid, romantic yearning in the passionate Venusberg episodes, building to ecstatic climaxes, yet maintaining rhythmic exactitude. Notwithstanding the relative newness of his stint with the BSO, Nelsons already has captured the best essence of the orchestra’s sound; and in this selection, the strings shine with singular brightness. 

Likewise Nelsons’ interpretation of the Sibelius Second Symphony, Op. 43, reflects his avowed passion for Scandinavian and Slavic music. After establishing his early success with symphonic poems and as a conductor, Sibelius launched his first five symphonies in moderately quick succession. For Nelsons, having grown up in Latvia under Russian domination, there is likely a heightened connection to this particular Sibelius composition, since it was written during a period when Russian domination and repression loomed menacingly on the horizon for the Finnish nationalist movement. 

The BSO has a deep history with the music of Sibelius. Koussevitzky championed this composer’s works; Colin Davis’s complete BSO Sibelius symphony cycle is definitive for that oeuvre. Nelsons carries on that tradition and involvement with an interpretation that celebrates the programmatic contrasts intended by the composer. He plumbs the gentle, pastoral nature of the opening Allegretto for its grace and tranquility, creating an unrushed, optimistic quality and textural clarity. In the Andante, Nelsons creates mystery with great attention to the pizzicati in the strings and the low winds and brass, building to a fevered pitch as the piece progresses, yet restraining the passion to emphasize its inherent gravity. Vivacissimo is just that: lively, quick but not hurried, and the perfect tempo to display the undeniable virtuosity of the BSO strings. The Finale, joyfully announced by dazzling trumpet work, never relents, skillfully working its way toward a noble and jubilant ending. 

Maestro Nelsons’ debut CD appearance, much like his debut concert as music director, provides an exceptionally satisfying introduction to the talents of a musician who is fast becoming a legend in his chosen city and throughout the musical world. His future releases with this orchestra are greatly anticipated. 

Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons: Label: BSO Classics 1401. Produced by Shawn Murphy

Photo used by permission of: Hilary Scott
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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