Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons at Carnegie Hall (3), with Yo-Yo Ma & Steven Ansell – Mozart 23, Jörg Widmann’s Partita, Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote

Symphony No.23 in D, K181
Jörg Widmann
Partita, five reminiscences for orchestra [BSO co-commission: New York premiere]
Don Quixote – Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, Op.35

Yo-Yo Ma (cello) & Steven Ansell (viola)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 13 April, 2018
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Yo-Yo MaPhotograph: Tom WilliamsThe evening opened with a vigorous performance of Mozart’s brief D-major Symphony (K181) – from 1773, when he was seventeen, an Italian overture in design: three movements, fast-slow-fast, played without pause. Andris Nelsons chose the work because of the affinity of its second-movement oboe theme with the ‘Dulcinea’ melody in Strauss’s Don Quixote, and which cued a meltingly melancholic solo from Keisuke Wakao.

Jörg Widmann’s Partita is a BSO-Leipzig Gewandhaus commission celebrating the recently established partnership between the orchestras. Last month Nelsons led the first performance in Leipzig and US premiere in Boston. The forty-minute piece references music history, especially Leipzig, with echoes of Bach, Mendelssohn and Wagner, a take on a Baroque-era dance suite, with three of its five movements bearing dance names – ‘Gigue’, ‘Sarabande’ and ‘Chaconne’ – though none of the music seems even remotely danceable. The opening recalls Wagner with hints of Parsifal and Tannhäuser, while the melodious and graceful Andante echoes Mendelssohn’s Clarinet Sonata. The central ‘Divertimento’ with its playful rhythms and irreverent irony adds a touch of humor, while the mournful ‘Sarabande’ plays out without any incident beyond the bassoons wailing in the highest register. The dignified final ‘Chaconne’ starts with an alto flute, makes its way through a set of variations, and becomes increasingly tense until it ends with a massive and wonderful climax. The BSO and Nelsons delivered a dedicated performance of this mostly somber, but altogether beautiful and entertaining work.

In his affectionate musical portrait of Cervantes’s knight-errant battling windmills, routing a flock of sheep, dreaming of his darling Dulcinea, and conversing with his trusty squire, Sancho Panza, on the merits of chivalric life, Richard Strauss allots a cello (Yo-Yo Ma) as Don Quixote, and a viola (BSO principal Steven Ansell) as Panza.

Nelsons led a vivid and highly nuanced reading with fluid tempos – amiable and abundant where warranted, razor-edged at times, but never nasty. Ma maintained a totally unassuming manner as he integrated his account with that of the orchestra. Making frequent eye-contact with Ansell, Tamara Smirnova (the characterful First Associate Concertmaster) and Nelsons, he maintained a continuous dialogue as he delivered a firmly characterized portrayal of the Don – warm, poignant and full of passion. As the BSO explored the dramatic possibilities of Strauss’s graphic orchestration, Ansell endowed Panza with good-humored humanity, and there were fine contributions from Craig Nordstrom’s bass clarinet and Mike Roylance’s tuba, and the Don’s death was exceptionally moving.

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