BSO week 2: Strauss and Mozart

Oct 8, 2021

Mozart and Richard Strauss shouldn’t be a controversial programming choice, even if the orchestra is digging a little deeper into each composer’s catalog. Apparently there’s a Strauss recording project afoot because we have more of it on the docket for next week. This time around the audience was treated first to the Love Scene from Strauss’s relatively obscure one-act opera/”sung poem” Feuersnot (“famine of fire”, but make your own alternate translation). Lasting about five minutes it’s over before it really gets going, taken out of the context of the larger work. Strauss isn’t known for brevity in his tone poems, but since it hasn’t been performed by the BSO since 1911 it was worth hearing.

Slightly earlier in the Strauss canon is Tod und Verklarung, aka Death and Transfiguration, a much more significant work but surprisingly not performed here since 1999. This was one of my go-to record albums in my younger days (I think it was Karajan/Berlin Phil) with the Metamorphosen on the other side also getting played a lot, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it live before. Nelsons didn’t over-sentimentalize the opening or the first brass invocation of the main tonal theme, keeping things in check so that the last third or so could be taken at a slower pace with bigger climaxes, there are several in this piece so it’s a challenge to gauge them relative to one another. Hearing it live you could hear all the inner parts, the texture was more transparent even with the horns blasting away, and a few less than perfect entrances or intonations but all in all it lived up to its expectations and the audience was enthusiastic.

For some reason this program put the Mozart Two Piano Concerto K. 365 by itself after intermission, normally you’d only see that for Rocky 3 or Brahms 2. The Jussen brothers were supposed to be the soloists but apparently couldn’t get into the country in time, so stepping in on short notice were sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton, who were obviously very familiar with this piece and gave a sparkling performance. No phrase was left untouched, with enough shifts in color from one idea to the next to give you whiplash, a style for Mozart that isn’t to everyone’s taste but seems to be the thing these days and makes for a lively and engaging rendition of what is not exactly top drawer Mozart. The interplay between the keyboards is constant, with multiple opportunities to get out of sync with each other, but the Naughtons had no difficulty in keeping steady. Since the fall concerts only clock in at 90 minutes there was plenty of time for an encore, so the soloists completely changed the mood with a rousing one piano four hand performance of what I believe was “Boogie”, from Paul Schoenfeld’s 5 Days from the Life of a Manic Depressive, a jazzy percussive tour de force that looks as hard as it sounds.

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