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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Mutter, on her own. Boston Symphony Orchestra, with Andris Nelsons

Mutter, on her own. Boston Symphony Orchestra, with Andris Nelsons

 Anne-Sophie Mutter, with Andris Nelsons leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 27 April 2017. Hilary Scott photograph

Anne-Sophie Mutter, with Andris Nelsons leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 27 April 2017. Hilary Scott photograph

A soloist like Anne-Sophie Mutter gets broad leeway. A long career spent tackling the toughest repertory—anyone else remember the Dvorak concerto she played a few years ago?—has earned her that.

She cashed in on that legacy Thursday evening at Symphony Hall. Andris Nelsons led an ungainly program that had two Shostakovich works—the Festive Overture, and the Sixth Symphony—bracketing two pieces that featured Mutter: the Tchaikovsky concerto, and Toru Takemitsu’s Nostalghia.

The Tchaikovsky reading challenged. Mutter was determined to stretch the limits of the score—in every way. Attack. Tempo. Volume. Almost grotesque slurring and intense legato marked her opening approach—the unforgettable melody that Tchaikovsky, in an incomprehensible bit of genius, never brings back. 

It certainly wasn’t sweet, which most readings of this popular concerto are, and which sound the orchestra was creating around her. The cadenza served up some questionable pitches, mostly stemming from the tempo of the attack. The middle movement—deeply muted, if there is such a thing—continued her notion. Parts were barely audible, the loveliness ignored in order to create her own personal ideas of the work’s musicality.

The approach brought rewards. The finale, attacked from the middle movement, continued the gambit, but made more sense. Mutter continued the rough-hewn solo line, her bowing and fingering a frenzy. The orchestra continued its lush, sweet accompaniment. 

It didn’t match—would love to hear what Nelsons was thinking—but it certainly grew into a genuine, integrated reading of the work. It’s great music, and can bear such ideas. Especially when someone like Mutter expounds them.

Takemitsu’s homage to Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovskij, Nostalghia, made an unusual compliment to the three other boisterous, involved works. It’s a steady, one-movement atmosphere of simple intervals—mostly seconds—deliberate, austere. The soloist mimics or echoes the orchestra—or vice-versa—which is a simple string ensemble of modest proportions, hardly ever playing tutti. 

The sound is small, the effect—it’s a nocturne really, or a rhapsody—docile. Mutter read the complete score with the ensemble, symbolic of the soloist’s part: she was just one of the gang.

It was a pleasure to hear Takemitsu’s music back in Symphony Hall, however incongruous on this program. It seems ages. 

Shostakovich’s works on the program are part of the ongoing recording cycle, and all these performances carry a special urgency to them. In a baldly simple summary, what joins these two works—the Festive Overture, and the Sixth Symphony—is the composer’s penchant to mix delicate, considered phrases with high energy and clangorous fun. 

The Sixth features an extended, introspective closing section that culminates the long first movement. Overwrought emotionally, it bore striking resemblance to Takemitsu’s Nostalghia—simple, repeated intervals, episodically offered, varied only by patiently altered dynamics. The two, much shorter, succeeding movements jump off into angular, sometimes cartoonish ideas—exploring a shockingly different musical imagination.

CADENCE: Takemitsu’s Nostalghia was commissioned by the Scottish Post Office (!) for Yehudi Menuhin, who premiered it in 1987. Just to remind how long Menuhin ranked among the great soloists, the program also noted that he performed the Beethoven concerto with the BSO in March, 1942—the first time the BSO played Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony.

Mutter always makes a striking appearance—Thursday’s cobalt-colored gown was fantastic. For violinists, the most striking thing about her appearance is the bowing arm. Classically positioned at the highest shoulder posture, she makes most other violinists look like they are still learning how to do it correctly. From Eduard Hanslick’s infamous 1881 review of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto: “we see a host of savage, vulgar faces, we hear crude curses, and the smell of booze.” Ah the good old days.

Takemitsu’s western friendships included Stravinsky (more of a mentor), Cage, Seiji, Paul Sacher and choreographer Jiri Kylián. Shostakovich’s Festive Overture was part of the only symphony concert the composer ever conducted—in Gorky, November, 1962. Also on the program was his first cello concerto, with Rostropovich as soloist.

This BSO program repeats this afternoon, Saturday and Tuesday evenings. bso.org; 888-266-1200

Boston Symphony Orchestra concludes 2016-17 season.

Boston Symphony Orchestra concludes 2016-17 season.

Quiet please. Lupu, Nelsons, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra play Mozart.

Quiet please. Lupu, Nelsons, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra play Mozart.