After a long hiatus, live performances came back to the Berkshires, the first concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Tanglewood Festival giving few indications of what the whole world has been through. There were a few face masks to be seen here and there, the souvenir shops were closed and the performance was intermission-less, but there was not much evidence of social distancing, the huge lawn seeming relatively full of picknickers paying more or less attention to what was going on musically. The Koussevitzky shed, basked for the night in a kind of psychedelic blue light, was more crowded than I expected, enthusiastic spectators frantically applauding the members of the BSO (all dressed in white and broadly smiling) when they emerged from the backstage. After a vigorous five minute long rendition of Beethoven's 1801 overture to the ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus ("the Creatures of Prometheus"), the ensemble’s musical director, Andris Nelsons, reminded everyone – in words that might have lost their impact, so much have they been repeated these months – that the period we traversed “has shown how much we need music, arts, culture as food and comfort for our souls”.

Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

Most of the events celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth having been cancelled throughout 2020, it was matter-of-course for the BSO’s first performance of the Tanglewood’s season to be entirely dedicated to his music. Besides the Prometheus (a work that does not show the originality and inventiveness of the earlier Symphony No. 1), Nelsons scheduled two masterpieces from the composer’s middle period.

The protagonist in the Piano Concerto no. 5  “Emperor” was Emanuel Ax, one of Tanglewood’s perennial favorites, having made his debut here more than four decades ago and appeared regularly since, both as soloist and as chamber musician. Having retained his exquisite technical abilities, Ax did not approach the work from a virtuoso point of view. Rather, he focused his attention not on the octaves runs or the martial rhythms, but on the lyrical aspects of the music, emphasizing with his trademark discretion the singing, Mozartean qualities of many of the piano’s contributions. In the Allegro, he drew attention to the dolce marking the piano’s entry after the tutti elaboration, treating the pyrotechnical segments with elegance and lightness. In the Adagio, Ax’s playing had an Apollonian serenity while his accompaniment to the orchestra-intoned chorale had the right combination of modesty and assertiveness. The two-bar passage linking the second and third movements was surprising and mysterious. In the final seven-part Rondo, every reiteration of the dance-like theme had a clearly individualized, perfectly articulated character. Encouraged by Nelsons and having collaborated with the pianist so many times, the ensemble easily adopted Ax’s unusually non-belligerent approach to the score.

The soundscape changed rather drastically in the rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5. Composed several years earlier than the Emperor Concerto, the music paradoxically sounded closer to Romanticism. Rhythmic contrasts and tonal mood shifts were more pregnant, the rendition had extra urgency. Maintaining the shape of the overall compositional arch, Nelsons drew attention to the many special details in this score from the surprising, oboe-uttered Adagio caesura in the first movement to the warm, lower-strings introduction and the Pastoral-evoking atmosphere in the Andante con moto to the contrapuntal play in the Trio to the reprise of the Scherzo’s horn-intoned theme in the Finale. The BSO players might need more time to readjust to each other’s presence. However, Saturday night’s outcome sounded promising.