One of Andris Nelsons’ great gifts as an interpreter – and it has grown impressively since his first season in Boston – is his ability to shape and develop large-scale musical forms.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
It’s well known that Dmitri Shostakovich wrote fifteen symphonies. But, apart from the Fifth and Tenth – maybe the First and Seventh, too – the majority of them are only occasionally heard. This season, after covering nos. 5-10 over the last two years, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and music director Andris Nelsons start their venture into less-familiar fare in their complete, recorded Shostakovich symphony survey. And, if Saturday’s performance of the epic Eleventh is any indication, wandering off the beaten path over the next few years should prove a riveting journey.
The Eleventh Symphony premiered almost exactly sixty years ago: its premiere helped marked the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1957, though its subject matter goes back even further, chronologically, to the January 1905 “Bloody Sunday” massacre at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Accordingly, it rivals the Symphonie fantastique as one of the most descriptive program symphonies in the repertoire, its four movements built around the slaughter of January 9th (which is savagely evoked during the second movement), following up the event itself with a lament for the victims and an uncompromising vision of the people’s resolve as they moved towards revolution.
On the surface, then, the Eleventh can be viewed as something of a propagandistic exercise, though, as with much of Shostakovich’s music, debate over what, precisely, the Symphony intended to celebrate – or denounce – remains unresolved.
Regardless, it’s an evocative score. The writing is often highly cinematic. Spare, open fifths and a plaintive chant suggest, like a panning shot, the chilly expanse of the palace square being filled by protesters in the first movement. The massacre, itself, involves music of ferocious brutality, while the mournful third movement transforms a familiar song for fallen heroes into a searing lament. Throughout, the action is presented very clearly and there’s a high level of craft in Shostakovich’s writing; expressively, it is correspondingly direct.
It’s tailor-made for an orchestra like the BSO, which, until the weekend, had never performed the score before. Better late than never, one might be tempted to say – except that it’s hard to imagine any of the BSO’s illustrious roster of post-1957 music directors leading a performance of more color or greater kinetic intensity than Nelsons drew from the ensemble on Saturday. (Well, maybe Ozawa in his prime.)
One of Nelsons’ great gifts as an interpreter – and it has grown impressively since his first season in Boston – is his ability to shape and develop large-scale musical forms. And, more than even the mammoth Seventh Symphony, Shostakovich’s Eleventh demands a baton-wielder with an eye (and ear) for the big picture. It’s a showpiece for the orchestra, certainly, but also a virtuoso workout for the right kind of conductor.
On Saturday, Nelsons was just that.
Everything was very clearly and logically paced: the music moved ahead when it needed to but never passed too quickly over a scene that needed to be carefully shaped. And there was lots of stark beauty to be found in those moments: the radiant fanfare-like solos from brass principals Thomas Rolfs (trumpet), James Somerville (horn), and Toby Oft (trombone) in the first movement; lush viola section solos in the third; Robert Sheena’s magnificent account of the long English horn solo in the finale; and so on.
What’s more, there was real personality to the orchestra’s playing, a total understanding of what was going on beneath the music’s constantly-shifting surface.
The climaxes of each movement all sounded distinct. The first movement’s soaring writing was brooding and intense, packed with nervous expectation. The second’s was raw and terrifying: the violent string fugue was (as it should be) slightly muddled; the sound of masses running for their lives. Above it, woodwinds shrieked, brasses snarled, and the percussion unleashed a vision of Armageddon. The mournful third movement was packed with sorrow, while the whorling coda of the finale drove with inexorable force. Over its closing bars – replete with pealing tocsin – the music was downright invincible.
In all, Saturday’s was a captivating performance, full of fury and fire, not to mention moments of overpowering volume and breathtaking stillness. No, it didn’t quite elevate the Eleventh to the same artistic plane as the Tenth or Eighth or Fifth or First. But it made an awfully strong argument for the piece, one that was plenty exciting to hear.
Equally impressive was the account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 that Paul Lewis played on the concert’s first half. It was, on the one hand, thoroughly lived in the moment: the piano’s opening phrase sounded utterly spontaneous and improvised; when it came back, fortissimo, at the start of the first movement’s recapitulation, there was the sense of a world, newly discovered, coming radiantly into view.
At the same time, this was a performance of refined elegance and taste, Lewis teasing out the music’s many lyrical bits, especially in the slow second movement. And he mined the score’s not inconsiderable stores of wit and humor, tossing off its many brilliant runs with pearly tone and subtle dynamic shadings. Many of those same qualities (minus the light-heartedness) were also abundant in his encore of Schubert’s pensive Allegretto in C minor.
In the Beethoven, Nelsons and the BSO provided a robust accompaniment in the outer movements as well as playing of weighty unanimity in the middle one. Theirs was a hearty performance, full-bodied in tone, vivacious and pert in spirit.
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.