For the second summer in a row, Andris Nelsons has invited the young German maestro David Afkham to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. It’s fair to say that the conductor fully repaid the confidence placed in him, demonstrating again a remarkable assuredness for someone his age.

Davis Afkham conducts the BSO © Hilary Scott
Davis Afkham conducts the BSO
© Hilary Scott

Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major seems to be a predilect work for Afkham. He conducted it in New York four years ago at the helm of the Mostly Mozart Orchestra. Now, leading one of the world’s great ensembles, his thoughts about interpreting this warhorse were made even clearer. Afkham’s Brahms is a youthful one, without lingering rubati and questions about direction. He knew exactly what he wanted to achieve: neither a continuation of the grim atmosphere prevalent in the First Symphony nor a full rejection of the past. Hence, he superbly maintained a balance between sunny and gloomy segments, triumphant enthusiasm and somber doubts (as expressed by James Sommerville’s horn calls), passionate Romantic content and Classical form, graceful pianissimos and heavy brass. To underline the importance of the cellos for this music – introducing themes in both the first and second movements – he placed them in the center of the stage, anchoring the entire orchestral sound. Ambiguities between binary and ternary rhythms in the Adagio and several rapid switches in mood in the first half of the work could make one think that the gap between Brahms’ and Mahler’s worlds is not as wide as generally perceived. The orchestra responded very well to Afkham’s relentless drive, with a clean sound balance between winds and strings.

The evening started with Simon Keenlyside making his belated Tanglewood debut in a selection of songs by Gustav Mahler, including three of the five extant Rückert Lieder among several others based on texts from the Des Knaben’s Wunderhorn collection. The British baritone might have thought that these specific songs correspond the best to his current range of vocal capabilities but this assertion wasn’t necessarily true.

As an experienced opera conductor, Afkham did everything he could to let the soloist shine, allowing Keenlyside to dictate as much as possible the pace of the continuous rhythmical changes and the lengths of the caesurae. He emphasized Mahler’s unique timbral combinations such as the harp, clarinet and English horn trio in Der Schildwache Nachtlied, and the push and pull of the strings in Verlorne Müh’ and Rheinlegendchen. He underlined several connections: the march in Der Tamboursg’sell evoking the Fifth Symphony composed at the same time; Rheinlegendchen recalling the minuet in the Third Symphony; the bitterness in Revelge bringing forward reminiscences of klezmer music.

Simon Keenlyside, David Afkham and the BSO at Tanglewood © Hilary Scott
Simon Keenlyside, David Afkham and the BSO at Tanglewood
© Hilary Scott

Keenlyside’s voice was overstretched at the top and the falsettos he conjured were fragile. His lower notes were shallow as well. Only in the middle range did his voice really bloom, reminding everyone of his artistry and former vocal splendor. It is incontestable that he is an intelligent and charismatic interpreter with a great scenic presence. He was overall impressive in the last song, Revelge, with its extended orchestral accompaniment, and succeeded to sound menacing in the Gute Nacht section of Der Tambourg’sell, warm and humorous in Rheinlegendchen, assertive in the Deine Neugier is Verrat verse in Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder.

David Afkham has conducted only rarely in the United States. Other American orchestras should follow Boston’s example and invite him to guest conduct as much as he is available.