The New Year started with a bang (not only metaphorically speaking) for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The first sounds heard in 2022 were those of a full orchestral blast introducing a world premiere: four episodes (from seven) selected from a newly composed suite that HK Gruber extracted from his opera Tales from the Vienna Woods (2014). The work is the latest output of a co-commissioning project at the core of the alliance established between Andris Nelsons’ two orchestras, the BSO and the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony
© Michael Blanchard

The opera is based on the 1931 play of the same name by Ödön von Horváth, a satirical commentary on the opposition between the saccharine gemütlichkeit one attaches to Johann Strauss II waltz Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald and the indifference and brutality prevalent – at both individual and societal levels – in the petit-bourgeois Viennese world during the Great Depression. With his previous successful experiments in mixing musical idioms (classical, cabaret, Sprechgesang), Gruber was eminently qualified to turn the play into an opera (von Horváth thought of Kurt Weill for such a potential endeavour). Exposed to these strictly orchestral fragments, listeners discover an amazingly rich sound tapestry employing a huge palette of tonal colours and instrumental effects (such as the muted trumpet in the Introduction or the piano rushes in the last two movements). Nelsons and the BSO rendered this remarkable mixture of disturbing and melodious snippets, at times aggressive and at others delicate, evoking grobian or sensitive characters’ utterances with utmost care. The conductor also paid great attention to bringing forward all the discombobulated references to the Viennese musical tradition, from Beethoven to Berg’s Wozzeck, obviously including chips from Strauss’ waltz itself. One should hope that, at some point, Gruber’s opera will be presented here in its entirety.

A great admirer of Shostakovich, Nelsons proposed in this subscription series a work by the other eminent symphonist of the Soviet era, Sergei Prokofiev. However, one could not stop recognising reminiscences of Shostakovich in the generally unclouded score to the Fifth Symphony: the sardonic sense of humour displayed in the Scherzo; intimations of mortality in the third movement; military sounding percussion and brass (but not depicting the horrors of war as Shostakovich’s earlier “Leningrad” Symphony); and maybe a sense of doubt in the triumphant last bars. Conducted for the first time in Boston under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky, just a few months after its Moscow 1945 world premiere, Prokofiev’s Fifth was received enthusiastically in the United States, retaining since its position in the repertoire even if it is played less frequent than this symphonic masterpiece deserves. 

Hilary Hahn and the Boston Symphony
© Michael Blanchard

In his rendition, Nelsons made abundantly clear why Prokofiev is considered one of the greatest melodists of the 20th century. He imbued the Andante with a sense of grandeur, underlining how soaring themes are intertwined and move from one section of the orchestra to another. The twisting tune in the third movement was passed with great dignity and elegance among woodwinds. Clarinettist William R Hudgins played with great subtlety his Finale theme. The “balletic” character of multiple sequences, especially in the middle sections, was made obvious.

In between the purely orchestral works, Hilary Hahn was the soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major, presenting her own cadenzas embellishing each movement. Her overall performance, perhaps lacking a certain distinguishing individuality, was sunny and elegant and the level of mutual understanding with the conductor and orchestra was high, especially in the nonchalant final Rondeau.