Beethoven composed nine symphonies. For the all-Beethoven finale at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony performed four of them, under masterful batons of senior conductors no longer in need of scores. Dry, balmy weather atoned for past downpours, intrusive thunder and hazardous lightning. After the summer’s varied setbacks, the last weekend was an olive branch.
Valedictories began Wednesday and Thursday in Ozawa Hall, when the Beaux Arts Trio, whose first concert was at Tanglewood 53 years ago, concluded its American farewell tour with a pair of well-received concerts that introduced a new piece for them by Gyorgy Kurtag. Menahem Pressler, 84, hasn’t lost his magical light touch and crowd-pleasing manner. Violinist Daniel Hope and cellist Antonio Meneses, perhaps musing on their expanding careers, were less involved, and the Dvorák “Dumky” trio and Ravel trio sounded like lullabies. Thursday’s two Schubert trios were firmer and encores more lively, but it’s time to salute a job well (and long) done and call it a night.
The weekend’s only non-symphony was Beethoven’s Mass in C, which opened Friday’s concert in the Koussevitzky Music Shed. The last time the orchestra did this eccentric piece, John Oliver, conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, found himself conducting as a substitute for the ailing Robert Shaw. But all Oliver had to do Friday was prepare the chorus — which he loves to do — in elegant detail, tracing oddball voice leading and shaping risky harmonic jumps that are like going from first gear to fourth without hitting the clutch.
Scoreless and happy
Neither the chorus nor the returning Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos used scores, and it is a freeing experience for choristers to watch the conductor, hands at their sides. Conductors must also be thrilled to work with such a responsive large group.
Music director James Levine had to undergo kidney surgery that took him away after the second week, but his influence is so great that Tanglewood is unlikely to have a mediocre vocal soloist ever again. German soprano Christiane Oelze is a voluptuous musician who pours out full unconstrained tone. She and the clear, forceful German bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann, both here for the first time, were welcome again in Sunday’s Ninth.
Beethoven’s symphonies are so revered that great composers—Brahms and Mahler among them—were cowed by his achievement and had trouble starting symphonies of their own. The iconic No. 5 is so riveting that its first movement has been excerpted and parodied: Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca mimed a marital dispute to it and Peter Schickele narrated it like a baseball announcer. Its famed four-note motif, which threads through the entire work in a prophesy of music’s future, is identifiable to everyone who knows any music at all.
Frühbeck began the intense, driven performance in an assertive crouch, giving the first four notes not a micron of extra time. All first chair players were in evidence: the oboe hung shimmering, the piccolo twittered, bass fiddles struggled comically. The finale’s uplifting heroism, which Frühbeck staunchly conveyed, sent listeners off to the full parking lots feeling like heroes.
Saturday’s concert was led by Christoph Von Dohnányi, who is making a guest appearance after 20 years as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Symphony No. 2, used as a prelude here, inhabits the same formal world as No. 1, and may be the least often played. The performance showed it off as spirited, hearty and enjoyable.
No. 3, “Eroica,” confirms a huge breakthrough about two years later. Its 20-minute first movement predates Mahler’s first symphony by about 90 years and the Mahler’s length and density is regarded as a milestone in the literature. Dissonances blared in the brass, offbeats were punched and the funereal second movement was like a precursor of Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration.”
Sunday’s weather and performance were picture-perfect; picnic blankets and chairs crammed the lawns all the way back to the Tanglewood trees near the Visitors’ Center. Dohnányi, who concluded the 1991 season here with the Cleveland Orchestra, has ended his Cleveland tenure, but the Ninth stayed right in his gut. Other conductors have problems in places where he, having solved them long ago, has none, and performers follow his cues with pleasure and relief. Choristers are so familiar with the piece that, in rehearsal, those who have not sung it before are hauled to their feet and applauded.
The middle voices in the solo quartet, Finnish mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi and Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser, were very good, and the outer voices from Friday’s concert were again terrific. A happier ending cannot be imagined.