WAGNER: Overture to Tannhauser; SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 –Boston Sym. Orch./ Andris Nelsons – BSO Classics 1401, 61:12 ****:
At age five, conductor Andris Nelsons’ parents took him to a live performance of Wagner’s opera Tannhauser. “…it had a hypnotic effect on me. I was overwhelmed by the music. I cried when Tannhäuser died. I still think this was the biggest thing that happened in my childhood,” Nelsons relates. Wagner’s Overture to Tannhauser was the first work he played as new Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This live recording captures that performance and the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 from the fall of 2014. The Latvian conductor is the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (from 2008 to the summer of 2015) and regularly conducts the world’s major orchestras.
In the ten years after the first performance of his major symphonic poem Kullervo in 1892, Jan Sibelius (1865-1957) studied in Vienna and Berlin. His compositions—En Saga, Karelia Suite, Lemminkainen Suite and his First Symphony, among others)—had won him fame throughout the world as well as in his native Finland. From nowhere came an obsessed amateur music lover, Axel Carpelian, who passionately suggested that Sibelius write his now famous tone poem Finlandia (1899). That work positioned him as a Finnish patriot in his country’s increasingly volatile struggle for independence with Russia. In 1902 Carpelian also provided the composer with funds from a Finnish benefactor that allowed him to travel to Italy where he emerged from depression (his daughter Kirsti had died from typhus) and wrote his Second Symphony.
Although Sibelius never intended his Symphony No. 2 to be a political statement, his friend, the conductor Robert Kajanus, wrote after the work’s premiere, “The Andante strikes one as the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent…” The Second Symphony is a transitional work: its romantic national style is full of Italian lyricism, yet the formal structure contains elements of his future symphonies that made him an internationally recognized master. Fragmentary themes presented in different order create forward motion that interact with each other, creating swells of sound and quiet interludes that lead to dramatic climaxes. Yet, the passionate, nationalistic ending to this symphony is the apotheosis of Sibelius’ romantic period.
Nelson’s interpretation is notable for the sensually imaginative pastoral moments that make the powerful swelling climaxes emerge with increasing dramatic force. The beginning of the second movement—the mysterious cellos—create a background for the ensuing turbulence. There’s a sense of hysterical violence in the development that makes the mournful end to the movement even more heart-wrenching. The quicksilver scherzo gives way after a pause to a brief sylvan interlude, led by a gorgeous oboe solo. Taken too slowly, the finale can sound grandiose, losing its majesty. But, Nelsons sustains forward momentum while eliciting the quieter details (oboe melody) that recall the opening movement. It’s a performance that’s thrilling (listen to the tympani at the end) without losing the mystery and introspection that makes Sibelius a wonderful composer.
Wagner’s Overture to Tannhauser benefits from sharp attacks, atmospheric quieter sections and gorgeous playing from the Boston Symphony Orchestra—mellifluous strings, flawless horns and deep, riveting cellos and bass. These two performances bode well for the future of this orchestra under Andris Nelsons.