The last of the series of three streamed performances marking the return of Music Director Andris Nelsons to the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had the same quite odd structure of the previous two: a Beethoven symphony (two on this occasion) complemented by a brief contemporary orchestral work and a chamber music coda.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony
© Aram Boghosian

Juxtaposing the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, Nelsons proved once again that he is not constrained by neither the rigours of “authentic” doctrine nor by interwar-defined traditions. He controlled performances that, without necessary bringing novel interpretative insights, were focused and wholesome. He was helped in his endeavour by an orchestra eager to prove that months of inactivity had not diminished its cohesiveness, with woodwinds led in both works by Associate Principal Flute Elizabeth Klein and Principal Oboe John Ferrillo, and horns steered in the Seventh by Associate Principal Richard Sebring. The sound of an orchestra with a reduced number of strings (just six cellos and four double basses) spread over an extended stage, with the conductor’s podium directly surrounded by just the principals, was always crystal clear. The Fifth did not feature such well-defined contrasts as other versions, but the rendition was still full of momentum and restlessness. The Andante con moto dispensed with any unnecessary sentimentality and the tension of the transition between the Scherzo and the Finale was palpable. In the Seventh, the Vivace segment of the first movement dragged a tad, the music not dancing sufficiently. The Scherzo and the final Allegro con brio were, nevertheless, full of vital energy.

Sandwiched between the two Beethoven symphonies, Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers which takes its title from the first words of a quote from Homer’s Iliad that Beethoven copied into his 1815 diary. Originally conceived in 2019 as a Philadelphia Orchestra commission (similar to Iman Habibi’s Jeder Baum Spricht programmed by the BSO in last week’s performance) Simon’s work was premiered online last fall under Yannick Nézet-Séguin's baton. Inspired by the harmonic structure of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, it is reflecting a similar spirit of defiance against fate. “Musical gestures that are representative of the unpredictable ways of fate” – in the composer’s words – combine in unexpected and marvellous ways in an extrovert score exuding energy. Arpeggios and incisive statements float on top of a percussive rhythm with a slight Latin-American whiff. The brief work (several minutes long) gave the impression that it could easily be developed into something more substantial.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Aram Boghosian

For the last segment of the programme, BSO’s Principal Second Violin Haldan Martinson and pianist Max Levinson selected Schoenberg’s Phantasy for violin and piano, Op.47. It is a work whose connection to “The Spirit of Beethoven” – the theme of these performances – is rather far-fetched. With its constant changes of pitch, volume, and meter, all masterly executed by Martinson, the work is as good an example as any for what the composer called “developing variations”. The violinist carefully underlined the presence of waltz-like snippets and other reminiscences of “old” Vienna among the fragmented melodic motifs of this atonal score. Schoenberg apparently wrote in full the violin part before adding the piano lines. Consequently, the piano is rather reactive, echoing the violin’s inflections and dynamics, and rarely introducing new ideas. The collaboration between Martinson and Levinson was beyond reproach.

One must applaud the BSO and Nelsons for feeling the need to somehow compensate their faithful supporters in the absence of public concerts. Recording new orchestral performances in their empty Boston concert hall was clearly a worthwhile endeavour. Unfortunately, only few great American orchestras have taken a similar approach.

This performance was reviewed from the BSO NOW video stream