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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Overture to Tannhäuser [15:43]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 [45:19]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 27 September 2014 (Wagner), 6-11 November 2014 (Sibelius), Symphony Hall, Boston
BSO CLASSICS 1401 [61:12]

My goodness, the Boston Symphony has been even quicker than I expected in showcasing on CD its relationship with its new Music Director, Andris Nelsons. This is the latest release on their own label – previous discs have included several symphonies by John Harbison but in this case the repertoire is more mainstream. Here we have the Wagner overture with which Nelsons began his very first concert as Music Director. He had been Music Director-designate in the previous season but, from memory, his appearances with the orchestra had been rather limited, no doubt due to existing diary commitments. The main work on the disc is the Second Symphony of Sibelius, taken from concerts given a few weeks later.

Nelsons has achieved wide praise for his conducting of Wagner operas, including performances at Bayreuth. This account of the Tannhäuser overture is pretty impressive. It opens spaciously and I admired the sound of the BSO, which has good depth to it. Later, in the swift central episode the strings and woodwind play with pleasing lightness and agility. The return of the Pilgrims’ Hymn is well built by Nelsons to a sonorous conclusion. There’s no applause at the end and I have the impression that the recording is cut off just a fraction prematurely in order to eliminate applause. The music itself isn’t compromised but the sound doesn’t decay quite enough. It’s a very marginal thing. To be honest, on such an occasion I think the retention of a bit of applause, suitably faded, would have been justified. I’m sure the Bostonian audience appreciated this auspicious launch to their new Music Director’s tenure.

In a prefatory note in the booklet Nelsons expresses his love for the Sibelius Second Symphony. I’ve never heard him conduct any music by this composure during his time at the head of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and, indeed, I’m reliably informed that he hasn’t performed any music by the Finnish master in Birmingham. However, Boston got an early exposure to Nelsons in Sibelius. As he himself says, he’s following a distinguished lineage with this work because both Serge Koussevitzky (review) and Sir Colin Davis recorded it in Boston in 1935 and 1976 respectively though both of these recordings were made under studio conditions.

I think Nelsons is pretty impressive overall in this symphony. The first movement is well shaped though it did cross my mind that if he’d been working with an orchestra that he knows even better there might have been more fire in the performance. I’m certain that will come as he and the BSO develop their rapport, which already seems sound. The climactic passage (from 5:59) is imposing and Nelsons builds up to it effectively. The second movement is also good. Since Nelsons has implicitly invited comparison with those previous recordings I will say that I strongly prefer the pace he adopts – which is similar to that of Sir Colin Davis – compared to the over-hasty speed of Koussevitzky, which rather glosses over the mystery and majesty of the movement. This second movement is subject to quite a number of changes of speed and mood and in lesser hands there’s a danger that the music can seem episodic. Not so here: Nelsons handles the various episodes, and the transitions between them, convincingly and he conveys the ‘legendary’ ambience of the music.

I listened with particular care to the third movement because I’d heard one commentator suggest that there is some untidiness in the playing. I honestly couldn’t detect that, whether listening through loudspeakers or headphones though I had the impression that the BSO’s playing is even better defined for Sir Colin. Nelsons invests the music with plenty of dash and vigour and the trio is tenderly fashioned. The transition to the finale is well-managed though Davis seems even more natural and authoritative here. Once the finale is launched the sweeping first theme is grand and confident and the movement as a whole is idiomatically and convincingly delivered. My first reaction to the final peroration (from 12:42) was that it was a bit too broad and rhetorical, though it would be understandable for Nelsons to yield to temptation here, particularly with the BSO pulling out all the stops for their new chief. However, further listening and a comparison with the Davis recording, which is not dissimilar, convinced me that the rhetoric and pace are justified. This time applause, swiftly faded, is retained and the performance receives a huge ovation.

The performance of the symphony is very good in most respects though I was surprised to hear two or three momentary lapses in tuning, mainly from the clarinet section, which is surprising at this level. However, once Nelsons and the orchestra are really used to each other, which is unlikely to take long and if he develops quickly with them the same rapport that he has enjoyed with the CBSO then these two performances suggest that it will not be long before the partnership becomes a force to be reckoned with. I hope that we shall soon have more recordings so that those of us who don’t have the good fortune to live in Boston can follow their progress.

The CD is attractively presented; the booklet contains several colour photographs and what I suspect are the programme notes for the concerts themselves, which are valuable. The recorded sound is good though quite close. By contrast it seems that for the Davis recording the microphones were not quite as close to the players and one gets more of a sense of the ambience of Symphony Hall. However, I imagine that the Philips engineers were working in an otherwise empty hall whereas in placing their microphones the BSO Classics engineers will have been constrained by the presence of an audience who are, by the way, commendably silent. Overall the engineers have done a pretty good job with these new recordings.

John Quinn