As on many previous occasions, the 2019 Tanglewood Festival Opening Night’s program was neither too daring nor uninvolving, prefacing one of Gustav Mahler’s most performed symphonies with a late piano concerto by Mozart.

Emanuel Ax plays Mozart at Tanglewood © Hilary Scott
Emanuel Ax plays Mozart at Tanglewood
© Hilary Scott

The E flat concerto K482 seems to be one of the Emanuel Ax’s favorites. He played it here, as soloist with the same Boston Symphony Orchestra, three years ago. I always felt that Ax, who turned 70 last month, even if being globally recognized, deserves to be better appreciated than he really is. He is an artist of great modesty, whose many renditions of a vast repertoire are constantly imbued with an exquisite musicality, whose phrasing is always wonderfully shaped and full of sensitivity. Piano playing is not about grandiloquent gestures, thunderous fortissimos and amazingly rapidly executed scales. Even so, the world is full of young, brash virtuosos ready to take such an approach. We should better cherish the ones that don’t.

For a pianist renowned for his Schumann and Beethoven, Mozart might not seem a natural fit. Nevertheless, Ax’s playing was full of grace and wit, with that hint of sadness and regret that only experience can bring. A sense of discovery wasn’t obvious and the two cadenzas that the pianist put forward lacked any special character, but Ax’s sound was clear and pure. His interpretation balanced well joyous, affirmative statements with ones of refined delicacy. Ax’s extraordinary gift for musical collaborations was especially evident in the Andante, during the piano’s conversation with the orchestra occurring in the third variation of that marvelous theme initially announced by the strings. Conductor Andris Nelsons proved a careful accompanist, never overwhelming the piano. In a score that emphasizes – more than in other Mozart piano concertos – the orchestra’s independence, he made sure to draw attention to those special segments in the Andante featuring winds alone or a flute-and-bassoon dialogue accompanied by strings. He also underlined several reminiscences of Le nozze di Figaro, composed at the same time.

Andris Nelsons conducts Mahler at Tanglewood © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons conducts Mahler at Tanglewood
© Hilary Scott

After the interval, a powerful reading of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was not completely successful. The tempos chosen by Nelsons were occasionally so slow that the overall sense of progression from dark to light, from grief and bitterness to unmitigated joy was not as clear as it could have been. Especially the Adagietto, a love-song to Alma Schindler – for many, the simplest and most heart-wrenching of Mahler’s extraordinary set of slow movements – seemed to have been played at a pace insufficient to sustain the needed tension, despite the strings’ truly warm sound. In the initial Funeral March, Thomas Rolfs’ trumpet solos were full of amazingly expressive changing colors even if his intonation wasn’t as immaculate as usual. The slower than expected tempi didn’t really bring forward any “lost” details and the brass was occasionally overpowering the strings, a tendency that continued to manifest itself in the next movement. The cellos’ lament – a singular island of peace in the tumult – was beautifully rendered and so was the final denouement following the last of chorale climaxes. It is in the Scherzo, the symphony’s fulcrum, a huge development section with a prominent role for a solo obbligato horn (Associate Principal Richard Sebring) where the protean character of this score is truly revealed. Andris Nelsons and the BSO beautifully underlined the shifts in mood, the Viennese charm and Gemütlichkeit that constantly resurface. Everything came together in the Rondo finale. The overall tonal tapestry was well balanced, the counterpoint wizardry handled without any mannerisms. Reaching the D major peak – the last time Mahler concluded a symphony in a jubilant manner – brought a sense of genuine bliss.