LENOX — Soprano Renee Fleming, in full glamor mode, roused the large Tanglewood audience into raptures Saturday night with Strauss' "Four Last Songs," whose valedictory message seems hardly the kind of thing to get pulses pounding.
An elderly couple recalls springtime, September and falling asleep; at the end, they walk hand in hand into the twilight, calmly accepting death. The story is simple but the wells of emotion are deep.
Fleming says she has sung this luminous, sumptuously orchestrated work more times than anything else in her extensive repertoire. Marking the 25th anniversary of her Tanglewood debut, she returned Saturday to sing the set with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnanyi, a master of the German repertoire.
Alas, Dohnanyi canceled last week, while already on campus, because of complications from cataract surgery. BSO assistant conductor Ken-David Masur took over.
Fleming's voice remains the one that has driven audiences mad all these many years, but on this occasion her low register no longer fully bolstered the high. She also threw herself around onstage in operatic gestures that seemed at odds with the serenity of the music.
But she sings these German songs with beauty of sound that few can match. Her hush on the final words — "could this perhaps be death?" — cast a spell. Elsewhere, passions reigned. Yet amid all this urgency and twilight glow, with the orchestra accommodating the voice almost too politely, the valedictory sense — the farewell to life and love — seemed to take second place to singing.
Fleming was accorded an encore: Strauss' orchestral song "Caecilie" (Cecily).
Masur inherited a death-themed program that paired two composers' final works: the Strauss songs and Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony. Whatever ideas Masur may have had about the symphony, the hastily prepared performance didn't come together in either conception or execution. That didn't stop the audience, thinking the show was over, from erupting in a standing ovation at the end of the march movement.
The program opened on a mysterious note with Ives' "The Unanswered Question." Thomas Rolfs' offstage trumpet kept posing the enigmatic question that Masur's orchestra could answer only with an uncomprehending hum.
In another star turn yesterday afternoon, pianist Yuja Wang went against character with a subdued performance of Ravel's Concerto in G, but then produced the expected dazzle in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." (The dazzle was also visual: She returned from intermission in a blindingly green gown.)
The Chinese-born soloist was only half the afternoon's story. Gustavo Gimeno, currently the director of the Luxemburg Philharmonic, made an impressive BSO debut in the program of loosely connected, early 20th-century pieces.
It took him a while to get going in Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony but by the end, the playing bristled with wit in the modern take on the classical form. In the afternoon's finale, the colorful rhythmic swirl of Stravinsky's "Firebird" ballet, in the 1919 suite, swirled into life. The performance built organically to the soaring climax.
The Ravel and Gershwin works are cousins; in fact, it's something of a surprise to find that Ravel drew on Gershwin's jazz, rather than vice versa.
Wang put an extra measure of smokiness and dreaminess into Ravel's mix of jazz, jokes and melody — so much so that the already dreamy adagio seemed to tinkle on aimlessly. The Gershwin performance, however, raced from nightclub to concert hall and back as Wang loosed the keyboard fireworks.
Gimeno gave the soloist solid backing in both pieces, and the BSO went into high-powered Pops mode for Gershwin. Thomas Martin put extra wiggle and sizzle into the clarinet's wailing opening.
A cloudburst gave the downbeat for Friday night's all-Mozart program with Pinchas Zukerman doubling as violin soloist and conductor.
Musically, the evening began with the "little" G minor Symphony (No. 25), given its due in pathos. For the rest, routine hung over the chamber orchestra program like the night's humidity, and maybe partly because of it.
Mozart's "Haffner" Serenade is an entertainment, albeit on a grand scale. The stolid performance of the opening allegro and three subsequent violin-concerto movements seemed to want to turn charm into monumentality. The weather probably contributed to Zukerman's increasing difficulties in the solo part after a suave beginning.
As the finale, the Symphony No. 39 sounded more driven than brilliant.