A curtailed, intermissionless Boston Symphony Orchestra performance at Tanglewood skipped any introductory work, but preserved the habitual concerto and symphony, played here in reverse order, given the relative weight of the works selected, with the first movement of Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor longer than Prokofiev’s entire Classical Symphony. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition made sense, both works representing quite similar attempts by youthful composers in their mid-twenties to express something fresh and new while continuing to refer to and respect the tradition.

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

Setting out to compose his first symphony, Prokofiev wanted to demonstrate that forms and styles associated with the Classical period, with the oeuvre of Haydn and Mozart, could be injected with a new vitality. With his tremendous gift for conceiving simple melodies and combining them into a complex structure, he created one of the greatest 20th-century examples of a work that sounded unmistakably modern and innovative while being built according to a canon of pre-existing rules. Andris Nelsons attempted to shed as much light as possible on the great skill and imagination needed to make the music sound effervescent and effortless. To draw attention to details, he adopted tempi that seemed, especially in the first movement, a tad too slow. At the same time, the sinuous line of the strings in the Gavotte, the pulsating rhythms of the bassoon (Richard Svoboda) in the Allegro, or the bridled energy of the Finale were beautifully rendered. 

Andris Nelsons, Daniil Trifonov and the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

Brahms’ First Piano Concerto had a long gestation – from a sonata for two pianos to a full symphony to its final incarnation – but the tension between the composer’s allegiance to the past and the groundbreaking harmonies prevalent in the development of the thematic material have always been there. On Saturday night, Daniil Trifonov and Nelsons treated Brahms’ masterful opus less as a struggle to evade the long shadow of Beethoven’s late symphonies and concertos, but as an extension of the Schumann-esque conflict between Florestan and Eusebius, between passion and introspection. The shifts in mood were evident especially in the Maestoso, where dramatic and fiery outbursts alternated with moments of tender lyricism. Trifonov moved with assuredness from explosions of leonine power to subtle cantabiles, his phrases always impeccably shaped. Driving the ensemble with a sense of urgency in the first movement, Nelsons maintained in the Adagio – the presumed musical portrait of Clara Schumann – a tempo that avoided any hint of over-sentimentality. Here, as in the Maestoso, the level of understanding between soloist and the ensemble was remarkable. Overall, the orchestra sounded glorious, reattaining, after just several public performances, the level of cohesiveness that has always characterised the BSO's playing. Nelsons brought forward marvellous undercurrents: the horns’ several noble interventions, the overlapping of winds and strings in the tranquil Adagio, the fugato attempt in the Rondo. In the latter movement, Trifonov thunderous octaves – the pianist almost standing in order to achieve a greater impact – were in consensus with the lightning flashes seeming to attack the Tanglewood campus from all directions. The balance between soloist and ensemble, carefully preserved up to that point, almost vanished. An epitome of Florestan, a Romantic visceral virtuoso in the mould of Liszt or Paganini dominated the stage.

Eventually, a peaceful calm returned once more, a dispassionate Daniil Trifonov offering a serene, somehow modern sounding, encore: an adaptation of the Bist du bei mir aria from the notebook that Johann Sebastian Bach presented to his second wife, Anna Magdalena.