Concert Review: Boston Symphony Orchestra plays Berg and Shostakovich

Andris Nelsons drew playing from the BSO that reveled in Alban Berg’s sense of color and musical drama. It’s sometimes easy to forget, in discussions of 12-tone music and technique, that, at heart, this is music of great daring and risk-taking.

Andris Nelsons leads Berg's Violin Concerto featuring violinist Isabelle Faust. Photo: Lisa Voll.

Andris Nelsons leads a performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, featuring violinist Isabelle Faust. Photo: Lisa Voll.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Andris Nelsons began his second and last fall residency with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) this weekend with a program that, by a strange twist, offered something of a response to recent events in Paris and Mali. At least that was one way of hearing his program of two epigraphic scores from the mid-1930s (Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5) plus a pair of choral pieces by J. S. Bach. Whether that’s the best way to hear the music—as a sort of anodyne to current events—is a separate question. Suffice it to say, Nelsons drew playing from the BSO that was electrifying and, in the Shostakovich especially, offered no single expressive conclusion from which to draw.

Berg’s Violin Concerto is always a welcome entry on a mostly-twentieth-century program. A memorial to Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, who died of polio at the age of 18, it marries serial and diatonic elements that help make it (along with a couple of judicious musical quotations, including Bach’s harmonization of the chorale “Es ist genug”) one of the most accessible examples of German musical Expressionism.

Isabelle Faust, who, in the last half decade or so, has become one of the most compelling violinists on the scene, was this weekend’s soloist. She brought to the piece an extraordinary steel and resolve: her tone glowed but still cut through (almost) all of Berg’s orchestral explosions. Faust’s approach to the work seems a bit more Apollonian than not, though with plenty of heart: the first movement references to a Carinthian folk song were positively lilting and, when the famous Bach quotation turned up in the finale, the music shimmered. Her phrasing and articulation, too, came across with remarkable bite and variety.

Nelsons drew playing from the BSO that reveled in Berg’s sense of color and musical drama. It’s sometimes easy to forget, in discussions of 12-tone music and technique, that, at heart, this is music of great daring and risk-taking. For those with ears, Nelsons demonstrated just that on Saturday. The extraordinary sonorities Berg conjured—from clarinet and harp in the opening bars to the wonderfully unexpected trombone glissando in the middle to the pristine organ-like scoring of “Es ist genug” in the finale—were drawn out with great attention to tonal shading and their structural placement.

The striking lyricism that’s such a big part of nearly everything Berg wrote was drawn out here, too: the near-waltz in the first movement all but swooned and the gradual revelation of the Bach chorale was discreetly colored. If Nelsons might have brought a lighter touch to the Concerto’s busier orchestral textures (which occasionally covered the soloist), he certainly tapped the score’s turbulent expressive crux.

The same and more can be said of the shattering performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 Nelsons drew from the BSO after intermission. If this piece is played too much, Saturday’s reading reminded precisely why it’s so popular. It also raised the bar for any subsequent readings of the score in Boston in the near future.

Nelsons’s Shostakovich cycle (now, if, as has been hinted at, we get the full 15 symphonies, a fifth of the way done) has been one of the revelations of his tenure with the BSO. He clearly believes in the power of the music to speak on its own: his interpretations have been notable for their straightforward pacing and lack of pretension. That’s not to say they’re wanting in personality. On the contrary, they brim with it. But the voice that comes across most strongly (and unfiltered) in them is Shostakovich’s. Nelsons’s job on the podium—and those who criticize his stage presence as showy and insincere or unmusical should take note—is to allow that voice room to speak. He does that, and extremely well, in this repertoire.

On Saturday, the BSO’s playing in the massive first movement breathed fire and rhythmic tautness. In the sarcastic second, though at times the tempo felt a clip leaden, the music oozed bitter irony, and that mood seemed to grow as the movement progressed.

The desolate third movement brought forth some of the Orchestra’s finest playing of the year, both from a technical standpoint (the soft string textures were breathtaking in execution) and emotionally. The way this movement evolves from shards of motives passed through the orchestra to a climax of wrenching anguish before closing with some sense of consolation is one of the marvels of the symphonic repertoire. In Saturday’s reading of it, time stood still. The myriad woodwind solos, which have been one of the highlights of Nelsons’s Shostakovich series, were spotlessly done, and the rich brass chorales sounded with striking devotion.

As for the rather vacuous finale, Nelsons led a reading that, in tempo, hewed to the middle ground, neither lightening-quick nor excessively drawn out. Perhaps the most striking moment in it was the most aurally painful: the huge, screaming orchestral climax about a third of the way through the movement felt raw as hell, blisteringly loud, seemingly cutting down everything in its path. If this is triumphant music, it bears deep scars. Or, maybe it’s just continuing the desperate fury of the third movement in a fresh setting. Either way, the cumulative expressive effect of Nelsons’s reading of this movement proved deeply uncomfortable, just as it should.

This weekend’s concerts were, as with all of Nelsons’s Shostakovich performances with the BSO, recorded for release next year on Deutsche Grammophon, so, if you missed this Fifth Symphony, don’t despair. The album, like last season’s taping of the Tenth, is likely to become a modern reference recording.

Saturday’s concert began with a pair of pieces by J. S. Bach: the motet “Komm, Jesu, komm” and the chorale, “Es ist genug,” both sung by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) and accompanied by organist John Finney. Balances and textures were sometimes a bit spotty, but both works laid a logical thematic groundwork for the substantial orchestral portion of the evening. The chorale, especially, proved apt, not only for its inclusion in the Berg but also owing to the recurring burden in the Shostakovich.

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.

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