Andris Nelsons started his second weekend of performances at Tanglewood with an atypically shaped program that began with a 20th-century work, followed by a classical symphony and ended with a piano concerto. There were obvious and less evident connections between these works. Ravel and Adès both explicitly pay homage to the art of Couperin and French Baroque; interestingly, so was the encore that Daniil Trifonov selected: the Gavotte from Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Haydn’s Symphony No. 83, nicknamed La Poule, also references French music.

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

Since the days of Charles Munch and Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has always excelled in rendering the characteristics of the French musical idiom. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, one of the composer’s most successful orchestrations of a previously composed piano work, was played with subdued coloring, as fit for a piece that is not only invoking the spirit and form of French Baroque music but is also a tribute to several of the composer’s friends and acquaintances who perished during the Great War. With elegant and incisive gestures, Nelsons proposed a version of the dance suite both lighthearted and evocative. He emphasized Ravel’s craftmanship, his ability to juggle with various instrumental timbres. The maestro brought to life music that sounds unmistakably modern but also has an ancien régime fragrance.

Composed almost a century after Ravel’s opus, Three Studies from Couperin, Thomas Adès’ ingenious transformation of three harpsichord works by François Couperin, opened the second part of the program. Scored for two string ensembles with added woodwinds, brass and several uncommon percussion instruments, Adès post-modern composition refracts Couperin’s colors and rhythms using all sorts of distorting mirrors: a flattened dynamic spectrum, shifting speeds, unexpected accents in the melodic line, blurred ornamentation. Even a listener with limited familiarity with Baroque music has a sensation of déjà entendu but the music brings him outside his comfort zone; he is forced to pay attention. Only a very precise rhythmical and timbral approach to this score will make Adès inventiveness shine, and this was exactly the case on Friday night.

Daniil Trifonov joins Andris Nelsons and the BSO
© Hilary Scott

Upon receiving a commission for six symphonies from the board of directors of a Parisian concert society, the Concert de la Loge Olympique, Haydn was eager to put in practise his new ideas regarding a seamless transition from one musical theme to another contrasting one. The mastery with which the composer blended together an intense first theme with a second one of buffa quality is one of the defining moments of the first movement of the Symphony no. 83 in G minor. As always, Nelsons caressed every little detail, not only in the striking contrapuntal writing in the Allegro spiritoso but throughout the rest of this score. The music might be often quite conventional but it flows with grace and charm and the members of the Boston Symphony played with gusto. Nelsons and his band didn’t forget to underline the irony in presenting a quite heavy Ländler to sophisticated Parisian society.

Concluding the performance, Mozart’ Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major, K467 was the real surprise of the evening. Renowned for his fiery approach to the Romantic and 20th-century repertoire and for his devilish technique, Daniil Trifonov displayed an unbelievable level of restraint here, from the piano’s cautious first bid for attention, relatively late in the Allegro maestoso, to the final chords. There was no Romantic effusiveness and very little, although perfectly justifiable, hints of Beethoven in Trifonov’s interpretation. The dialogue between piano, strings and woodwinds was at all times marvelously balanced. After the violins’ introductory bars in the famous Andante, with its fragile, dreamy atmosphere, the piano’s melody was soaring above a mostly muted orchestral accompaniment like a soprano’s lament. Overall, it was a splendid performance, its only odd component being the cadenzas, probably Trifonov’s own, which had the same mildly subversive, incongruous with the rest quality that marked the percussion interventions in the preceding Adès opus.