On the opening night at Tanglewood, rain complemented a mostly gloomy rendition of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Two days later, clear skies and balmy weather accompanied the same interpreters – the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by music director Andris Nelsons – playing the Fourth, the sunniest of all Mahler symphonies, perfectly suited for this idyllic location in the Berkshires. As on many other occasions when the weather is nice during afternoon performances, starlings’ chirping was an integral component of the musical canvas.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 in G major is considered his most "classical" score. Prefacing it with Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto made even clearer why. Composed between 1899 and 1901, the symphony is in four parts, the first three in very traditional sonata, scherzo and variations forms, the Finale a song for soprano and orchestra. The orchestral apparatus is limited; heavy tubas and trombones, predominantly featured in his other works, are missing here. As in a typical classical symphony, the musical color is mostly provided by the strings in the first movement. Harmonies are rather simple and the texture is close to being homophonic. If the Scherzo is more Romantic in nature, the third movement is in a form of mostly ornamental variations on two contrasting themes, one major and the other minor, an approach used several times by Haydn.

With leaner means and a more disciplined style, the Fourth might be considered a step back from the sonic and structural advances of the previous three symphonies. But, as Nelsons made very clear in his interpretation, this assertion is far from being true. Mahler constantly enriches the classical elements he uses in the composition. What appears as childish simplicity and innocence is informed by the composer’s never going away dark visions. For this conductor, the Fourth might signify less a return to Classical forms but a turning point in Mahler’s output where past and future intersect.

The Fourth is the last of Mahler’s symphonies to use texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German folk poems put together at the beginning of the 19th century by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. The last movement, entitled The Heavenly Life, was initially supposed to be part of the Third Symphony. The Fourth was hence composed backwards with the first three parts representing a build-up, from experience to innocence, to a pre-existing dénouement. During the entire journey, Nelsons paid particular attention to such details as smooth shifts in rhythmic patterns or winds bringing forward nature-like sounds. If Mahler's first movement sounded a bit pedantic, the Scherzo-ländler was beautifully rendered with concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s fiddling on the scordatura violin representing a character which is more an amusing scarecrow than the menacing traveling Death from medieval fables. The serene third movement, anchored by the cellos, was full of calm nobility and soulfulness.

When soprano Kristine Opolais gingerly stepped on the Koussevitzky Shed’s stage, during the last measures of the third movement, and later started singing “Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden”, you could sense that the soloist is just another voice in an instrumental ensemble conjuring a happy vision of Heaven. Unfortunately, Opolais is not necessarily a German Lieder interpreter; she is first and foremost a successful opera singer and the timbre of her voice sounded at times unsuited for this role.

Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major, K216 was composed in 1775. Like the others conceived when the composer was still a teenager, the score lacks the extraordinary inventiveness and operatic quality of the later piano concertos. The soloist was 16-year old Swedish prodigy Daniel Lozakovich who displayed remarkable assuredness on his US debut. Lozakovich has a strong technique and a wonderful sense of phrasing. His dialogues with a reduced size orchestra were well balanced, though his rendition of the Adagio lacked a degree of warmth. As an encore, he selected a virtuosic piece by Fritz Kreisler that he dispatched with sangfroid and without any perceivable hiccup. One could have wished for a less flashier work to assess the young violinist’s musicianship but there is little doubt, at this point in time, that Lozakovich is destined for a prodigious career.