This smartly-planned and highly satisfying Richard Strauss program featured music separated by forty-five years in the composer’s seven-decade career, and opened with a perfectly delicate account of the tender Sextet that introduces Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio (1941). The six BSO musicians who performed the work – supposedly composed by Flamand, the fictional composer in this “conversation piece” (the opera’s subtitle) – infused it with great expressiveness and warmth. Conducting from a seated position, Andris Nelsons was completely at-one with the musicians.
After a brief pause, the full Boston Symphony and Renée Fleming arrived. The intimate and headily nostalgic mood now intensified as Nelsons (standing) led the musicians in a wonderfully atmospheric rendition of the ‘Moonlight Music’ from Closing Scene. His expansive and ecstatic gestures embraced the ensemble and the sounds as Richard Sebring’s celestial horn solo led into the grand and flowing tutti, and the music flooded the hall with the gentle moonlight so accurately depicted by Strauss’s luminous score. In the twenty-minute conclusion Capriccio, one of most-rapturous showpieces in all of Strauss’s oeuvre, Fleming sounded as warm and graceful as ever. With her creamy soprano and superb dramatic skills, she perfectly captured the dilemma of Countess Madeleine who, faced with two suitors who come to represent two aspects of the opera – ‘words’ and ‘music’ – ponders the various merits of her admirers. Fleming’s appropriately understated gestures only added to the passion and poignancy of the scene.
This concert was dedicated to the memory of André Previn, a frequent collaborator with the BSO as a composer, conductor, performer and teacher, who passed away two weeks ago. After brief remarks in which Fleming related how Previn had conducted the BSO’s only previous performances of Capriccio’s conclusion, she sang a warm and heartfelt interpretation of ‘I can smell the sea air’, Blanche’s final aria from Previn’s 1995 opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, composed expressly for her.
The second half was taken up with a sweeping and imaginatively detailed performance of one of Strauss’s first successes, Also sprach Zarathustra. Nelsons drew magnificent and powerful playing from the BSO, which displayed thrilling virtuosity and an extraordinary dynamic range. This was an energetic and completely absorbing performance marked by highly contrasted episodes and a clear sense of organic development as the music related the struggle between Nature and humanity’s inquiring spirit.