Stéphane Denève, the vibrant French conductor who debuted with the BSO so impressively in April 2011 was on the podium Saturday evening August 11th in the Koussevitzky Music Shed for an intriguing program of Shostakovich and Elgar, with an André Previn world premiere. Denève’s rapport with the orchestra throughout the evening was palpable, eliciting attentive playing of extraordinary dynamic range and elegant sonority whether loud or soft. At times the proverbial pin-drop might have been audible all the way to Lake Mahkeenac.
André Previn’s 2012 Music for Boston is a curious bit of orchestral excursion, sounding quite eclectic and derivative, yet expertly crafted and easy on the ears. At its opening, with its long-spun low-lying unison string sonorities, I would have sworn that Previn was paying homage to the opening of Roy Harris’s Third Symphony, and a bit later I was equally convinced that I was hearing homage to William Schuman’s Symphony No. 3, with its massive block chords from the brass and the jumpy, disjunctive melodic line and elegant trumpet solos — the latter beautifully played by Thomas Rolfs. These two earlier symphonies were both BSO premieres and played by the BSO at Tanglewood and Symphony Hall under Serge Koussevitzky. The Schuman “3rd” is also dedicated to Koussevitzky. Surely Previn knows this, and I presume these “hidden” homages were intentional. There was, however, no mention of this in the Tanglewood program notes or the composer’s short introductory paragraph. In any event, as has been the case with much of Previn’s recent music played by the BSO, my overall impression was one of pleasantness and a somewhat facile spinning of sound and melody; on this evening these ended quite abruptly, as if the compositional spigot had been twisted to the “off” position mid-flow. And as for anything overtly “Bostonian” about the music (other than the above surmises) one was left wondering. A waggish audience member wondered aloud whether Previn might have confused Boston with Hollywood. Denève, for his part, was in complete command of this world premiere performance, which he conducted with expert clarity and assurance. At the end, Previn stood from within the audience to receive thanks and admiration from all present. He looked to be in good health and happy with what he had heard.
Yo-Yo Ma then came on stage to play, in his inimitable fashion, the Edward Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85, a rhapsodic, ruminative, and episodic work which cellists readily embrace but the music of which seems to divide audiences between passive tolerance and total, loving acceptance. As one expected, Ma was the complete master of this late-composed work, running its every possible emotional gamut, illuminating every dark corner, reveling in every rapid 16th-note scamper, empathizing with every deep rumination, and somehow unifying all this music’s many disparate elements so that the concerto’s sum proved larger than its four-movement parts. The music world is a better place for Yo-Yo Ma’s constant efforts in collaborative music making, and the BSO was smilingly with him all the way. This was a cherishable performance of a challenging work.
Following intermission, the orchestra and Mr. Denève gave what may have been a note-perfect performance of Dimitri Shostakovich’s most famous Symphony, the No. 5 in D minor, op. 47. This music, premiered in Russia during harrowing times under Josef Stalin’s dictatorship, probably saved Shostakovich from a horrible fate at the hands of the Russian regime, which had been unhappy with the composer’s immediately preceding music, apparently feeling that its inward -looking contemplations and outward expressions of presumed sarcasm were anti-Soviet. Probably so, but Shostakovich knew he had much more music to write and regimes will change over time. He introduced his Fifth Symphony as “…a Soviet artist’s creative reply to just criticism” in 1937; its premiere was played on November 21 by the redoubtable Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic. The symphony was an immediate success among its concert audiences, and the Soviets, though not thoroughly convinced of the composer’s contrition, grudgingly granted him absolution.
Ongoing scholarly explorations of Shostakovich’s life and music point to moments in this Symphony that hide in plain sight the composer’s true feelings. Indeed, when one hears the utter bleakness and hopelessness of the work’s Largo movement, it’s not hard to imagine the composer’s despair at what had befallen him and his countrymen. Shostakovich’s heavy-footed second movement, which Mahler might have described as “…sehr derb” (very course, uncouth, crude,…) as he had his own Ninth Symphony’s second movement, could easily be envisioned as an artless waltz tromped out by a passel of Soviet commissars. And the Symphony’s final movement, often assumed to be a paean of triumph, could be seen as a very loud statement of hollow victory, especially as its savagely beaten last eight notes are emphasized by a heavily struck bass drum and the timpanist is asked to hit his drums simultaneously with paired sticks.
This performance was impeccable, perfectly in tune at treacherously difficult points where it often is not, amazingly softly played where indicated, and impressively fulsome when the composer asked for all-out fortissimi. The tempi were ideal, and the final movement employed the now-acknowledged correct slow tempo as it approached its thunderous end. Yet, somehow, I felt something was missing. All was perfect and neat, yet somehow uninvolved. I remembered hearing a performance of this same work within this same venue, with the same-named orchestra from July 22, 1979, under Leonard Bernstein’s direction. While perhaps not so completely flawlessly played, it was the most searing and emotional performance of the Shostakovich 5th that I have heard, before or since. That emotion, that angst, that Bernsteinian Weltschmertz was what was missing last Saturday in Denève’s otherwise wonderful performance. I’ll remember Denève’s amazing dynamic control and the BSO’s thrillingly on-point playing for some time, I’m sure. But it’s Bernstein’s — and Shostakovich’s — heart and soul as revealed in that profound 1979 Tanglewood reading that I’ll recall with deepest respect in my long-term memory.