This was a stirring, thought-provoking, and, ultimately, moving reading of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Not quite two weeks after winning a Grammy for last year’s second installment in their ongoing Shostakovich symphony cycle, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) went to work on volume three. Last weekend’s concerts featured the Seventh Symphony, most of which was written in Leningrad during the opening months of the German offensive in 1941.
In many regards, the “Leningrad” Symphony is a tricky piece. First, there’s the issue of structure. It opens with an enormous first movement that builds up, Bolero-like, to a harrowing climax. The three subsequent movements, though, while each of them are over ten minutes in length, aren’t of the same magnitude or focus. Parts of them dally, some wander aimlessly.
Expressively, too, the piece is a weird mash-up of Shostakovich’s humanism and patriotism with Soviet propaganda. For once in his troubled life, Shostakovich wrote a symphony that perfectly fit the requirements of the government and of the moment: the Seventh’s triumphant ending is a sure-fire crowd-pleasing one – and, one imagines, a genuine reflection of Shostakovich’s hopes of ultimate victory in the Great Patriotic War.
Yet the question of what that victory might actually look like is a nuanced one. It’s generally agreed that the totalitarianism referenced in the first-movement “Terror March” is as much Stalin’s as Hitler’s. Once the invader was driven out, after all, the home-grown horrors remained, in many cases exacerbated by the privations of the war’s aftermath. There’s no easy – or truly happy – solution here and the music, all its major-key bluster notwithstanding, doesn’t provide one; the fact that the Seventh’s finale ends in a manner befitting the Fifth’s is a touch of irony that Shostakovich might have appreciated more than anyone will ever know.
So it’s ambiguous music, above all, even when, on the surface, things might seem clear-cut. And if any age is ripe for a message from a time of uncertainty, surely it’s ours. (Though one should be cautioned against drawing too-close parallels between Russia caught between the yokes of Stalin and Hitler and our own turbulent political climate. So far, that is.)
At least this was one takeaway from Saturday’s searing, in-your-face performance. Unlike his earlier Shostakovich interpretations with the BSO, in which the big movements are customarily broad and the short ones often clipped and steady, Nelsons was something of an interventionist in this reading of the “Leningrad” Symphony. By which I mainly mean he prodded things along. The effect was to give the overall reading an urgency from which seventy-plus-minute scores usually benefit, as well as a certain lightness and brio.
That’s not to say that power was lacking. The buildup of the first movement’s repetitious main theme began quietly enough – almost inaudibly – but grew to deafening proportions. So did the closing pages of the finale. These moments weren’t just episodes of uncontained noise. Quite the opposite: you could hear all the moving parts, clearly voiced and balanced. The BSO brass, for the third night in a row, scaled some heroic heights, beautifully and mightily, all the while displaying mighty stamina.
In the tender, contrasting sections, epitomized by the dancing, Mahlerian second movement, the playing was thoughtfully shaped and delicately executed. Ditto for the orchestral strings’ recurring third-movement recitatives, which were marked by fervor.
Throughout the evening, a number of notable solos stood out, including those from principal flute Elizabeth Rowe, principal oboe John Ferillo, English hornist Robert Sheena, and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe.
If Nelsons’ forward-moving approach to the Seventh helped paste over most of its longueurs, it did come at the cost of some of the sweep and immensity of Leonard Bernstein’s classic 1988 account, and there were fleeting episodes of ragged coordination – mainly in the first movement – between strings and winds. Still, his was a stirring, thought-provoking, and, ultimately, moving reading.
So was the piece that prefaced the Shostakovich, Sofia Gubaidulina’s new Triple Concerto. The title is a bit misleading, as it’s not a concerto in the conventional sense. Rather, it’s perhaps best to think of the score as an orchestral concertante work with three obbligato soloists: violin, cello, and bayan.
The latter, a type of Russian folk accordion, is, appropriately, the most prominent of the solo voices. Its wheezing strains open and close the work. Prominent gestures, from bright triads to swooping glissandos, emanate from it in between. The solo violin and cello offer some response to the bayan’s themes and also the orchestra’s. But, despite striking moments of their own – disjunct motivic lines, shimmering harmonics, and, at the end of the Concerto’s middle section, a fiery cadenza – they’re more commentators on the music’s action rather than instigators of it.
Perhaps that’s because Gubaidulina’s orchestral writing here is, by comparison, so dominating. Much of it is low and dark. There are lumbering passages for contrabassoon, trombones, and tubas, as well as cellos and double basses. The relatively few episodes of contrasting materials – recurring shining, high-tessitura wind and string triads being one of the most memorable – stand out strongly.
While her harmonic vocabulary is austere and Modernistic, Gubaidulina’s approach to form is relatively straightforward. Accordingly, the Triple Concerto’s three-part structure is clearly delineated and relatively easy to digest. Its expressive message is, appropriately, cloudier and more troubling. But, overall, the Concerto’s a major new work from this eight-five-year-old new music icon.
On Saturday, bayanist Elsbeth Moser took, quite literally, center stage, sitting there and drawing a wealth of colors and expressivity from her instrument. Violinist Baiba Skride and cellist Harriet Krijgh were her impassioned collaborators playing, alternately, with fire and with cool, gleaming tone.
Nelsons and the BSO were their equal partners. Low instruments – winds, brass, and strings – glowered intensely. The Concerto’s moments of bright repose glinted. One particular highlight of the scoring encapsulated the focus of the orchestra’s playing: a melodic line passed from the depths of the trombones to the highest range of the horns carried through its complete duration a manic tension that, normally, you’d be impressed to hear a lone soloist deliver, let alone a brass section.
Gubaidulina, as spry an octogenarian as they come, was on hand to receive some of the loudest shouts I’ve heard any composer get in Symphony Hall in the last thirteen years. Unlike sometimes, they were thoroughly warranted.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.