LENOX — What makes Haydn Haydn and Mozart Mozart?
The Boston Symphony Orchestra gave a demonstration at Tanglewood Sunday afternoon, playing nearly contemporaneous symphonies — one by each composer. Haydn's Symphony No. 88 in G, premiered in 1787, was all good humor and geniality, even when it took a turn to seriousness in the largo movement. Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor, premiered a year later, was steeped in pathos.
It's not that Haydn doesn't express darker emotions, or Mozart humor, from time to time. But that note of pathos, or melancholy, or whatever it is, runs through much of Mozart's music even when happy, suggesting the twinned masks of tragedy and comedy. The mere beauty of it can induce tears.
The BSO flanked the weekend's big event, Saturday's accompanied screening of "West Side Story," with small-orchestra concerts conducted by Juanjo Mena, a Spaniard who is chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, England. Friday's rain-sodden program labored under adverse conditions, but a sunny Sunday told a different story.
Mena drew finely honed playing from Sunday's reduced BSO. He tended to barrel through Haydn's surprise changes of tempo, dynamics and harmony, going more for flow and brilliance of effect. The Mozart symphony, however, had a nervous intensity that took on a sense of inevitability as Mena whipped up effect in the last two movements. This was Mozart at his darkest, to be succeeded by his most brilliant in the Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter."
Between symphonies, Gil Shaham gave an astonishing performance as soloist in Prokofiev's Violin Concert No. 1. Lyricism began the concerto and won out at the end, but violin pyrotechnics dominated in between.
As Shaham as shown many a time before, he has the technique and strength of tone to fly through the contortions Prokofiev sets for the soloist; as he did everything short of playing his instrument upside down, the fast ("vivacissimo") middle movement sounded like a dance with the devil. In a particularly striking moment at the end of the first movement, the violin played in soaring harmonics over a sort of chiming accompaniment by the harp and woodwinds. In general, the orchestra deferred to the soloist, offering up ironic commentaries such as bassoon and tuba solos.
The feat of the second movement was repeated as an encore.
Friday night's program was distinguished by Garrick Ohlsson's crystalline touch in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9, K.271, generally regarded as his first mature piano concerto. Ohlsson is a big man and can turn on the power if needed, but here he offered lightness and grace in the fast outer movements of the 21-year-old Mozart's charmer.
The slow movement, by contrast, had the hushed mystery that crops up (like pathos) elsewhere in Mozart. After the plunge into that darker world, Ohlsson's joking finale seemed all but giddy. The BSO accompanied faithfully, and Ohlsson played Chopin's Nocturne in F-sharp, Opus 15, No. 2, as a solo encore.
Flanking the concerto, the Four Sea Interludes from Britten's "Peter Grimes" and Brahms' Symphony No. 3 met with less success. On the dank evening following a thunderstorm, the BSO had to deal with recurring pitch problems. The orchestra's sound was unblended, with the brasses overbearing. In the closing storm scene in the Britten interludes, the playing ran into heavy weather of its own.
Brahms is not Brahms with his distinctive, smoothly textured sound, and the best the BSO could do was to go through the symphony with vigor that approximated Brahms.