It is perhaps ironic that the 100-odd musicians at Symphony Hall this afternoon congregated not for an “Emperor” Concerto but for a celebration of all things domestic and familial. The grandiosity and class in the former’s Fifth Piano Concerto, however, firmly demonstrated that size is far from everything. It left Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica feeling spectacularly decadent, despite the magnificently entertaining account given by Nelsons and his orchestra.

Paul Lewis © Jack Libeck
Paul Lewis
© Jack Libeck

The tag of “Emperor” did not come from Beethoven, unlike the “Eroica” title attached to the Third Symphony, but from a contemporary of the composer. There is no denying the work’s imperial credentials, though, particularly when given with such assured authority as Andris Nelsons and Paul Lewis did here, right from the soloist’s imposing first bars. A hefty string section of 50 was retained (only a desk smaller in each section than for Strauss), which gave the whole work a particularly solid anchor in the bass region and allowed for some stirring passages of fierce repeated downbows. There was also a good deal of subtlety, however, demonstrated early on in the first violins’ feather-light handling of the first theme. The horns took this on with great care and lyricism. Alec Frank-Gemmill, on loan from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, led the section with assurance throughout the concert.

The soft passages saw the batonless Nelsons conducting at times with nothing more than a flicked extension of the middle joint of a finger, which held a strict balance between piano and orchestral accompaniment. The more fully scored lines continued to swagger with confidence, Lewis extracting an astonishingly full sound from the piano. His playing in the second movement, by contrast, showed a pleasingly gentle treatment of the music, with a particularly lovely tone found at pianissimo dynamics.

Nelsons kept the slow movement relatively forward-looking in tempo, but it was nonetheless a thrilling plunge into the finale, causing a visible jolt in parts of the audience. A rolling, flowing sense of progression was maintained, with further explosive energy from soloist and orchestra. Lewis continued to impress with fine musicianship, interacting closely with the orchestra despite its large size, as well as playing with impeccable technical skill. The last bars flew to a breathless close, finishing an account as thrilling as I have heard of this popular concerto.

Richard Strauss’ 150th birthday is proving a good year to hear his less frequently performed tone poems, as which the Symphonia Domestica of 1903 must count. My colleague’s review of Wednesday night’s performance by the same forces is spot on in judgement, leaving little to add. The individual playing was excellent without exception, giving appropriate limelight to a long list of various soloistic passages. Especially memorable were the early solos for front desk strings beneath woodwind accompaniment, a gorgeously warm horn hymn tune and some movingly beautiful oboe d’amore playing in the Wiegenlied.

Technically this was near-perfect, and the idiosyncratic orchestral effects were enthusiastically attended to, making the surtitles almost redundant, so vivid was the imagery. The central love scene was quite explicit in its amorousness, and the late quarrel between Mama and Papa was so full-blooded that one wondered if it had come to blows. The final minutes, in the greatly exaggerated coda, were shamelessly, brilliantly majestic, and indulgent to the extent that timpanist Matthew Perry even doubled up the low brass ascending scale just before the climax at Figure 143. The Domestica may not be Strauss’ finest work, but it is enormous fun, and Andris Nelsons and the CBSO made a superb case for it to be heard more frequently.