Polished sheen as the Boston Symphony strings impress in Strauss
Big is beautiful. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, the grandest of international orchestras at this year’s BBC Proms, certainly went large in the first concert of their European tour, bringing a heavyweight programme in their luggage and packing the stage with the largest string section I’ve seen in action for a while – ten double basses on duty! And the string sound was certainly beautiful, the dense tone and polished sheen lovingly sculpted by Andris Nelsons’ meticulous baton. It worked best in Richard Strauss’ expansive ruminations on mortality in Death and Transfiguration, but lacked the caustic bite for Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony.
Nelsons and the orchestra opened with the European premiere of Julia Adolphe’s Makeshift Castle, a fine 15-minute work in two movements, titled Sandstone and Wooden Embers, which depicts life’s ephemeral nature. It draws on two key moments: the composer’s earliest memory of witnessing a sunset and the first time she saw her father cry, as he recalled watching a sunset with his own mother. It’s a work that plays on contrasts, Sandstone opening with lively brass and tense percussion, whose exuberance is suddenly stifled with a stopped horn note leading to sweet strings and muted trumpet, pared down to solo violin. The reflective Wooden Embers is the stronger movement, its powerful tutti framed by mournful bassoons, a desolate piccolo and a clarinet fading to nothing.
The Royal Albert Hall was then plunged into demonic red lighting – why? – for Strauss’ tone poem Death and Transfiguration. Nelsons was alert to the irregular breaths of the dying man at the opening in a reading that was considerably tighter than his recent BSO recording. The string playing was often exquisitely soft, the brass smooth, solo oboe noble. Nelsons basked in such a glorious sound, gradating the dynamics sensitively. Not a hair was out of place, every chord was carefully balanced. The climax surged as the “transfiguration theme” emerged and the closing moments offered heavenly repose.
Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was similarly well played, but where was the energy or the sense of danger? Nelsons’ tempi were fine – his baton movements may look fluid, but are very rhythmically driven from the wrist – but this account was metrical rather than menacing. The Boston brass tone was buffed, Nelsons sanding away Prokofiev’s sharp edges. The strings played deftly in the ostinato of the Scherzo, but this Allegro marcato lacked drive, despite the excellent percussion department’s best efforts.
The highlight was the gorgeous Adagio, its surging melody reminiscent of the yearning theme of War and Peace, the opera Prokofiev composed around the same time. The Allegro giocoso finale zipped along breezily, the clarinet solo perkily dispatched, but this Prokofiev 5 was disappointingly soft-focussed and under-characterised.