Sir Neville Marriner leads BSO in glittering Tanglewood concert

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On Sunday, July 19, Sir Neville Marriner conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra with pianist Paul Lewis at the Tanglewood Music Center, now celebrating its 75th season. The program featured two Mozart symphonies and Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto.

The venerable 91-year-old conductor is the Life President of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the chamber ensemble he founded in 1958.  Unlike many contemporary conductors who are heavy on affectation and light on substance, Marriner has the understated command and unforced grace of a seasoned maestro. Despite the sweltering heat, the audience was treated to a refreshing and effervescent performance.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner”), which he composed in 1783 to mark the ennoblement of his friend, Sigmund Haffner. In a letter written to his father, Mozart indicated that the opening Allegro movement should be played with fire. And fire it was when Sir Neville took the baton like a modern day Prospero, casting his musical magic over the spellbound audience. He led the orchestra with crisp, precise movements, anticipating each note with a thorough command of the score.

The orchestra played the Andante movement with a collective light hand, giving the rather subdued melodies a serene undertone. The strings were delicate without being timid, and the violin and viola sections had particularly meticulous syncopation.  The Menuetto movement suffered only from the barely audible timpani, but the drums did come through splendidly in the final Presto. Mozart’s last movement has a dramatic flair, and is similar to both the Overture of Le Nozze di Figaro and Osmin’s aria “O wie will ich triumphieren” from Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Marriner alternated his conducting with taut authority in the vigorous sections and effortless grace in the legato passages.

Next was Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Paul Lewis as soloist. Schumann reconfigured his earlier “Concert Fantasy” concerto in A minor into the first movement of his Piano Concerto. His wife, Clara Schuman (also a composer), performed the concerto at its 1845 première in Dresden.

Paul Lewis delivered a pristine, thoughtfully executed performance.  After an admirable attack with the dazzling opening cascade, Lewis seemed to pull back with more caution in his interpretation. His restraint was perhaps understandable given that the interchanges between the pianist and orchestra in the first movement are subtle and rather obscure, and require clear delineation and skill from the soloist and the conductor to bring out the contrast.  The oboe and clarinet also featured prominently in the movement, and the soloists were first-rate.

The second and third movements of the Piano Concerto do not have a break between them (attacca subito). The Intermezzo switched to F major and featured a gentle, lyrical theme beautifully interpreted by the soloist and strings. Marriner was particularly adept at eliciting an expressive response from the violas and cellos to match the quintessentially Romantic style of the piece. Both he and Lewis were remarkable for their unpretentious, thoroughly focused demeanors.

Lewis’s playing was at its finest during the slower and unaccompanied sections, when the audience could listen to his sensitive, insightful performance unencumbered by auxiliary sound. The finale was a vigorous display of piano tectonics with dramatic timpani and orchestral flair.

The concert closed with Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C (“Linz”). Mozart had just four days to complete it since his host, Count Thun of Linz, scheduled a concert without his foreknowledge. The composer wrote to his father complaining that he had to produce the score at a “head-over-heels speed” in time for its 1783 première.

Throughout the final symphony, Marriner’s vitality and attention to every note was remarkable.  It was hard not to watch his baton as it swirled in a precise semicircular dance with every note in the pizzicato sections and glided smoothly along the expressive sections of the piece.

In the opening Adagio—Allegro spiritoso, Mozart used the slow introduction format for the first time in his symphonic composing. It is possible he was influenced by his friend, Joseph Haydn, who frequently used the technique. Marriner conveyed the orchestra with effortless ease through the transition between the more serious Adagio into the expansive Allegro. He seemed to truly enjoy the piece, and his enthusiasm was infectious. The orchestra’s performance was lively, and the cello and bass sections were particularly good with their impeccable timing. The bassoonist also played notably well in the Menuetto.

Mozart instructed that the final Presto be played as fast as possible, and Neville Marriner and the BSO were fully up to the task. Their energy and precision were evident throughout, especially in the violin section and timpani.  The suspense of the music was mirrored by the unexpected string malfunction of one of the violinists in the middle of the last movement. With commendable finesse, she re-attached the errant string, tuned her instrument, and resumed playing without a hitch. As the final movement and concert neared their lively conclusion, a roll of thunder boomed outside on perfect cue with the timpani. To a standing ovation, Sir Neville Marriner left the stage with a twinkle and wave, leaving the audience with a thoroughly memorable concert experience.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected]