An unseasonably crisp Sunday afternoon in the Berkshires proved perfect weather for Tanglewood. It almost didn’t matter what the Boston Symphony Orchestra chose to perform: the feel of the cool breeze and the smell of fresh foliage was lovely enough on its own. But the audience came for a concert as much as they came to picnic and promenade, and the assembled forces delivered a thoughtful program that drew on music of the region, as well as Beethoven’s impending Sestercentennial.

Thomas Adès and the BSO at Tanglewood © Hilary Scott
Thomas Adès and the BSO at Tanglewood
© Hilary Scott

Although Beethoven’s 250th anniversary doesn’t officially occur until December 2020, orchestras around the world are already beginning to take up the celebration. The Tanglewood program was anchored, appropriately, by his “Pastoral” Symphony. Thomas Adès, who recently completed a Beethoven symphony cycle with Britten Sinfonia, led the BSO in a fleet but textured reading that seemed to draw its energy from being performed in such a bucolic setting.

The piquant flutes in the Allegro ma non troppo and woodwinds in the Andante molto mosso approximated birdsong with such verisimilitude that I wasn’t surprised to spot a sparrow flying briefly under the roof of the Koussevitzky Music Shed. Adès took a leisurely approach to these movements, with the music unfurling rather than hurtling forward, and the tactic seemed appropriate for a golden summer day. It also allowed him to highlight the strengths of BSO ranks – particularly the low strings that anchor the piece, who made their presence felt without overwhelming the gentle atmosphere.

Adès saved his bombast for fourth-movement Allegro, the “Thunderstorm,” which was so wonderfully charming when set against a beautiful clear backdrop. And he resolves the tension with a lovely, lilting Allegretto, which returned the audience to the idyllic world of a Massachusetts weekend. The fine overall performance put this listener in the mood for more Beethoven, which thankfully will not be in short supply across the next twelve months.

Thomas Adès and Inon Barnatan with the BSO at Tanglewood © Hilary Scott
Thomas Adès and Inon Barnatan with the BSO at Tanglewood
© Hilary Scott

Beethoven was represented elsewhere on the bill with his Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, performed by the Israeli-born, US-based soloist Inon Barnatan, who showed himself as both an adept stylist and a deeply connected artist, particularly in how he established the piano’s distinct tone in the first movement, where the keyboard and the orchestra are at their most opposed. His sound is not the largest in the game, but he possesses the ability to draw the listener to him with the sensitivity of his playing. Although I would have liked a bit more bombast in the concerto’s thrilling conclusion, Barnatan’s light touch was exactly right for the slower sections. Adès subtly adapted the orchestra’s sound to match the delicate mood created by his soloist.

Delicacy was not present at all in the BSO’s performance of Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England, and although this is music that makes a big noise, a dash of restraint would have been welcome. Adès seemed unable to shape the fanfares, marches and minstrel songs of “The "St. Gaudens" in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and the Colored Regiment)” into a unified whole, and the opening measures of “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut” were taken with too much abrupt force. The Ives opened the concert, and it stands to reason that Adès and the BSO forces were just finding their groove. Appropriately, the final selection – “The Housatonic at Stockbridge”, depicting Ives’s own honeymoon in the Berkshires – emerged with lovely balance.

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