In the second of a trio of freshly recorded video performances grouped under the heading “Music in Changing Times – Pathways of Romanticism”, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Musical Director Andris Nelsons explored several orchestral works from the first half of the 19th century whose titles seem to indicate their authors’ modesty of intent. Nevertheless, Schumann’s Konzertstück was classified as a “concert piece” not because the composer considered it insufficiently elaborated, but because its three parts are connected. Weber’s Concertino for Clarinet is indeed a shorter one-movement piece, tackled by many students of the instrument early in their career, but among other works composed for Weber’s favorite instrument, it is far from being insignificant.

Andris Nelsons
© Aram Boghosian

Felix Mendelssohn’s String Symphony no. 10 in B minor, the first work on the hour-long programme, is itself closer to the 17th or 18th centuries' narrower-scope sinfonia – an orchestral overture or interlude attached to a grander work – than it is to the concept of symphony as we know it. Rediscovered only after the Second World War, among twelve similar opuses, it was written by the extremely gifted 14-year-old as a composition exercise to be played at one of his family’s reunions. It is not clear if the single movement that survived was followed by other two, but the music – inspired by the string symphonies of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and paying homage to Haydn and Mozart – is full of exuberance, prefiguring aspects of Mendelssohn’s mature style. Nelsons carefully built the progression from the slow B minor introduction, employing the lower strings, to the breathless finale. Helped by a well-coordinated ensemble, with violas distinguishing themselves, he underscored the skill with which the child prodigy handled the thematic development and the tonal balance in the passionate Allegro.

The BSO’s highly experienced principal clarinettist, William R Hudgins, was the soloist in Weber’s Concertino, composed together with the two larger concertos for the same instrument in 1811. Playing with great assurance, with a clear and warm tone, he stressed the harmonic transformations in what is essentially a theme and variations. A mostly self-effacing ensemble accompanied Hudgins on a journey rich in rhapsodic moments.

Composed in just a few days, as was Weber’s Concertino, and premiered in Leipzig, Schumann’s Konzertstück is a work full of lyricism and inventiveness, besides being a virtuosic showpiece for the horn soloists. From chorale-like moments requiring great coordination to rendering the daringly shifting harmonies that make this score unique amid Schumann’s orchestral output, Richard Sebring, Michael Winter, Rachel Childers, and Jason Snider, all members of the BSO family, played their lines with acumen. Nelsons kept a proper balance in the conversations between soloists and ensemble, helping different musical colours blend into each other.

Similar to every “BSO Now” production in recent months, the stream had a tripartite structure. Ending with a piece of chamber music, it also included a documentary segment – “Leipzig, Crucible of Romanticism” about the important role played by this German city, its publishing houses and the Gewandhaus (Andris Nelsons’ “other” orchestra) in the 19th-century musical history.

William Grant Still shared with many composers of the Romantic era an interest in the relation between music and the visual arts. With its occasionally jazzy and café-concert inflexions, his three-movements Suite for Violin and Piano was inspired by the work of three major African-American artists (Richmond Barthé, Sargent Johnson, Augusta Savage), associated, like the composer, with the Harlem Renaissance movement. Alternating between strongly rhythmic and purely melodic moments, rendered with gusto by violinist Victor Romanul and pianist Randall Hodgkinson, the deceptively simple score, straddling the frontier between “art” and popular music, was worth bringing back from oblivion.

This performance was reviewed from the BSO NOW video stream