NEW YORK — There was one big question hovering over the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s ambitious programs at Carnegie Hall this week: How would the tenor Jonas Kaufmann fare in his trial run in one of the mightiest roles in opera, Wagner’s Tristan?
For both Kaufmann and his Isolde, the soprano Camilla Nylund, this 75-minute act, which contains the most unbridled, aching and ecstatic love scene in the repertory, represented first attempts at these touchstone roles.
Isolde is a summit for dramatic sopranos, and Nylund brought vocal radiance and affecting volatility to her performance. But a great Tristan is a real rarity. Is Kaufmann, who has excelled as Wagner’s Lohengrin, Parsifal and Siegmund, the Tristan we’ve been waiting for?
There were tantalizing moments — long stretches, even — in his courageous performance. When Tristan arrives at night to meet Isolde, Kaufmann combines virile energy with dusky colorings to suggest a man caught between desire and world-weary sadness. But he was particularly fine when passions calm for a while and the two lovers sink into Wagner’s nocturne, longing to be eternally united in death. The covered quality of Kaufmann’s voice, in which even firm, sustained notes have a slightly shaded cast, was what you dream of hearing when Tristan sings these melting phrases.
A great Tristan must have vocal endurance to sing the entire role, and Kaufmann still seems to be finding his way. He also appeared to be grappling with some congestion and took frequent sips of water. But this was a big step.
The mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura sang Brangäne with big, bright sound and urgency. The stentorian bass Georg Zeppenfeld brought sad dignity to the scene when King Marke, who has been like a father to Tristan, is crushed by the young man’s betrayal with Isolde, who is betrothed to Marke.
Nelsons drew vivid colors — dark strings, reedy woodwinds, mellow brasses — and impressive clarity from the orchestra. He brought shape and flow to the coursing music. Some of the playing, though, was a little blunt and forceful, especially when the lovers had their first ecstatic exchanges. The orchestra sometimes swamped them.
Bluntness of the most exciting kind, however, characterized the performance Nelsons led on Wednesday of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. This 70-minute, three-movement work for an enormous, brassy orchestra, written in the mid-1930s, shows the composer at his most audaciously modernist. The music seems to defy formal constraints, shifting from crazed vehemence to bitterly ironic dances, blasting marches to spans of industrious counterpoint. It’s confounding. But Nelsons and his players had me hooked.
Between that Boston program and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert Tuesday, Carnegie offered a miniature Bernstein festival for that composer’s centennial year. Nelsons led Bernstein’s “The Age of Anxiety” (Symphony No. 2), a restless, episodic and exhilarating piece with a formidably difficult solo piano part, here played with dreaminess, blazing technique and jazzy intensity by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
On Tuesday, Yannick Nézet-Séguin opened the Philadelphians’ program with a vibrant and sensitive account of Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” a 1965 work that blends poignant choral settings of psalm texts with overt elements of theatricality. The Westminster Symphonic Choir was excellent, and the boy soprano Dante Michael DiMaio brought disarming beauty to Bernstein’s wistful, blue-note-inflected melodies.
The program also offered the New York premiere of Tod Machover’s “Philadelphia Voices,” the latest in his series of collaborative “city symphonies.” This 30-minute work folds in crowdsourced elements, including recorded voices of Philadelphia residents and sounds of urban bustle. The texts include poems by two Philadelphia-area teenagers, Jayda Hepburn and Cameron Coles, who made their first trips to Manhattan to attend this premiere.
The piece is an eclectic musical celebration of a city that also looks at issues of injustice and inclusion. I wish Machover had worked a little harder to fashion some of the recorded sounds and sourced bits into a more intricate work. Still, it was inspiring to see the Westminster choristers joined by the eager members of three young ensembles: the Keystone State Boychoir, the Pennsylvania Girlchoir and the Sister Cities Girlchoir. The kinetic Nezét-Séguin looked like one of the kids as he led an impassioned performance.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.