The Friday night concert at the Tanglewood festival felt pointedly chipper, as summer concerts often are. Tanglewood in fact tends to offer somewhat weightier programming than most American festivals, but open-air concerts can only take so much Mahler, apparently. On this occasion the Boston Symphony Orchestra, playing under the Music Director, Andris Nelsons, opened with Ravel's crowd-pleasing Tombeau de Couperin, gurgling softly through the Prelude, and showing not quite enough spirit in the Rigaudon.
Haydn's Symphony No. 83 in G could hardly have been more idiomatic, as the BSO showed a nice, reserved bite in the opening Allegro spiritoso and brought a fine, spacious ring to their sound. Nelsons nailed the indication in the second movement; tempo markings are so often treated as though they correspond merely to a tick on the metronome, but they bear some nuance, too. Andante, “Walking pace”—that's at least as much a frame of mind as an actual speed. It ought to be leisurely, strolling, forward-moving but unhurried. This was.
The BSO has enjoyed a close relationship with Thomas Adès in the last half-decade. They’re lucky—the English composer is an extraordinary talent, producing some of the most inventive and enjoyable new music in concert halls today. (New York audiences should look for the premiere of his new opera, The Exterminating Angel, at the Met this coming season). The “Three Studies from Couperin” are classics of the Adès oeuvre, playful riffs on the French Baroque. Each retains the basic courtly character of the original, even as it is tweaked and warped and augmented—the first, “Les Amusements,” features the wacky addition of a marimba striking out on its own path. The BSO gave this first study a fine reading, weaving a lovely blend of hazy colors—the other two seemed less prepared.
Friday’s soloist was Daniil Trifonov, the young Russian who seems set to lead the field of pianists for the next few decades. The keyboard wunderkind is just about unavoidable in concert halls these days, known for his thrilling interpretations of the most dizzyingly difficult piano rep. I've never heard him play anything so tame as a Mozart piano concerto, as he did on Friday's concert—No. 21 in C.
Observed a brassy woman behind me before he started: “We heard this guy the other night, everybody thought he was wonderful. I thought he was a banger—slammed the keys like you can't imagine!” I wasn't there for his recital on Wednesday, though I can imagine how parts of it might have gotten a little bangy (Kreisleriana, Petrushka, and some other items). But at his best, Trifonov is a master colorist, a real piano-whisperer who can eke out pianissimos softer than you would think possible.
He showed that quality most of all in the Andante where he matched the soft sighing sound from the orchestra with some sublime floating of his own. The first movement was a little harder to swallow: Trifonov showed the same splendid touch, but Mozart’s allegros need a certain steadiness that this performance decidedly lacked—it’s not lockstep tempo, exactly, but a poise, a dead confidence of pacing to give the whole a feeling of self-assurance. Trifonov seemed to be leaning on the front edge of every quaver.
His encore, Prokofiev’s transcription of the Gavotte from Cinderella, was spellbinding. It was masterfully spun, a colorful flight of whimsy decked in devilish grins and giggling flourishes. People may think of Trifonov as a “banger”—he can hammer through Liszt with the best of them, sure. But it’s his dazzling finesse that makes him truly a great pianist.
When planning a trip around a cultural calendar, one usually has to target one or two highlights, and then accept whatever else is on as a bonus: you might see that there’s a Das Lied on Monday and a Schubert Ninth on Friday, and if there’s a good quartet recital or two in between, so much the better.
But live performance, of course, is unpredictable, and as often as not an unexpected performance will end up being the standout. In this case, sadly, the surprise was a concert performance of Das Rheingold that was far less compelling than it should have been. A few weeks ago at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic gave a concert Rheingold of their own, and I recall thinking that the staging was hardly missed—Wagner’s music is so vivid and so specific that the mind of the listener can supply all the scenery required. Maybe I didn’t give Alan Gilbert & co. enough credit: the BSO and soloists under Nelsons’s baton drove through the opera cleanly but with little inspiration.
The biggest name on the bill by far was Stephanie Blythe, who stepped in to cover when Dame Sarah Connolly withdrew due to illness. Blythe was a fearsome presence as Fricka in the Met’s last Ring cycle, and she still commands the stage with ease. She is unbelievably loud in person, and there remains plenty of depth and color in her lower range; her top, alas, has gone off somewhat, sounding thin and a little shrill. Jochen Schmeckenbecher snarled nicely as Alberich, without managing to find the more lyrical side of the role. Thomas J. Mayer brought a nice, wooly sound to the role of Wotan but felt underpowered. Kim Begley’s comic hamming as the fire-sprite Loge couldn’t make up for the tired reediness of his tenor.
The only real standouts were in the supporting cast: David Butt Philip’s golden, heroic tenor in the role of Froh, the oaken-voiced baritone Ryan McKinny as Donner, the rich bellowing of Morris Robinson’s Fasolt. The BSO, polished though they were, had few moments of intensity; even the thrilling descent into Nibelheim felt overly restrained.
Das Rheingold requires such a commitment of mental energy from the audience that if the performers fail to reward them with focused playing of their own, the result is acutely underwhelming. If an orchestra goes to the trouble to assemble a Rheingold, anything less than outstanding artistry is a severe disappointment, even if it packs them in at the box office.
The Sunday matinee ended with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (speaking of stacking the box office). Beloved as it is, it’s sort of a garish piece—its thumping bombast and spooky effects excite the imagination without moving the listener. At any rate, the BSO played it exactly as it should be—loud and flashy. Pastoral breezes filled out the country scene, and the brass seemed to enjoy blaring out the “Dies Irae” theme in the witches’ sabbath.
More interesting to me was the first half, featuring guest star Anne-Sophie Mutter. Twenty years ago, Mutter was every young violinist’s hero, and her career has shown no signs of fatigue as she’s become the doyenne of the instrument. She opened the concert with the world premiere of “Markings,” a piece for solo violin, strings, and harp by John Williams that sets a keening, uncertain lyricism in the violin over the warm bed of the orchestra. This isn’t the stuff of a Williams film score: it doesn’t have that vivid representational touch that makes his cinematic work so enchanting, but it compels nonetheless, stirring up emotions instead of images.
Her main item was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. This of course is one of the Big Three violin concerti (along with Beethoven and Brahms), but I was struck by the realization that I haven’t heard it on a concert in at least three years. It’s sort of like Henry the Fifth: one of Shakespeare’s most popular, poetic plays; one assumes it runs continuously. When’s the last time you actually saw it performed?
Mutter’s account of the concerto wasn’t especially clean—a number of fast passages were flubbed, and she rushed almost constantly in the outer movements. But her musical sense was unimpeachable. This concerto is a perfect fit for her particular brand of virtuosity: noble, but hot-blooded, too. The Canzonetta was gorgeous, holding back on vibrato to let the simplicity of the music shine through, and the finale was exhilarating, even as she put her foot back on the gas.
Williams pieces seem never to come singly, so Mutter offered something from his popular oeuvre for her encore: the main theme from Schindler’s List, accompanied by the BSO. She played it stunningly, of course, but what was most striking was how fresh the music felt. This theme is so immediately recognizable, so familiar, and yet, even divorced from its proper context its first five notes can still put a knot in your throat, twenty-five years on. It’s tempting to wonder how many years down the road John Williams’s music will still be working its magic on listeners.