The venerable Boston Symphony in their distinguished hall has, like other performing arts organizations, been compelled to adjust to adverse circumstances and their resulting restraints. Music Director Andris Nelsons, in his “Paths of Romanticism” series, has chosen programs that can be played by a small chamber group made up some of the world’s finest musicians. In the third program of the series, Nelsons and his stellar musicians performed two relatively lesser-known works of iconic late Romantic composer Richard Strauss: the first, from the composer’s early years; the other, a much later opus.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Aram Boghosian

Strauss’ Serenade for Winds in E flat major was composed in 1881, when the composer had just turned 17. Mozart and Mendelssohn notwithstanding, this is undeniably the early work of a green but talented creator. At just nine minutes, it is short but utterly charming and filled with youthful wonder. Orchestrated for 13 instruments, double woodwinds, contrabassoon, and a full quota of hour horns, the sound the Boston musicians produced was rich with melodic and rhythmic color and echoed the Mozartian beauty and joy of his Gran Partita.

Strauss’ father, Franz, was legendary for the brilliance of his horn playing. This undoubtedly influenced young Richard’s writing for the instrument, and the skillful BSO horn players showed themselves capable of executing the composer’s writing with aplomb. The wind players by necessity were unmasked (apart from the clarinetists) but maintained a proper distance from each other, which made it even more remarkable that they were able to achieve an impressively homogeneous sound throughout. The result was an inspired, and inspiring, rendering, which reflected the great sensitivity and delicacy that Nelsons showed in his minimal but graceful gestures. 

In his 1924 domestic comedy opera Intermezzo, Strauss, for the first time since Salome, wrote his own text. Perhaps he deemed himself the only writer who could paint a portrait of himself and his wife Pauline, a relationship that was devoted but at times problematical. Strauss called his opera “a bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes”. The semi-autobiographical story is based on a true incident involving Strauss and Pauline which resulted in a serious rift between the couple. 

The Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Aram Boghosian

Strauss incorporated the instrumental interludes, or intermezzi, into an orchestral suite in 4 movements, which reflect some of the most splendid music in the opera. The theatrics of the operatic action are cleverly represented: frenzied disagreements, inner conflicts about infidelity (or at least fantasies thereof), even the sounds of shuffling cards, all are portrayed in the lavish harmonies and luxuriant orchestration. In its first complete BSO rendition comprising all four interludes, the BSO performed with great flair, elegance, and ebullience.

The first and most extensive intermezzo, Reisefieber und Walzerszene­ (Travel Fever and Waltz Scene), evokes Strauss’ Rosenkavalier waltzes; in fact, the waltzes were originally intended for that opera. The orchestra, now including strings, combined vivacity with grace and tenderness, and the strings superbly displayed their ever-impressive virtuosity and impeccable intonation. Nelsons waltzed along on the podium, his magnanimous gestures reaching all the way back to the extremely distanced winds, brass, and timpani. Especially beautiful string playing in Träumerei am Kamin (Dreaming by the Fireplace) pulsated with the heartbeat of a sentimental wife missing her husband. The lively Am Spieltisch (At the Card Table – kudos to the lovely string quartet playing) and deftly played Fröhlicher Beschluss (Happy Conclusion), rounded out the delightful program.

The lustrous performance of the Boston Symphony musicians brilliantly affirmed hopes for what Robert Schumann called “a youthful, poetic future”.  

This performance was reviewed from the BSO NOW video stream