Andris Nelsons returned for the second of three consecutive weeks at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, bearing a substantial program for Thursday—Dmitri Shostakovich’s Passacaglia from Act II of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with soloist Christian Tetzlaff, and Shostakovich’s massive Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93. If a theme tied the music together, it’s the presence of opening movement structures the size of most symphonies, and a pulsing rhythmic drive that suggests that the BSO’s new Music Director is fine-tuning his precision locomotive.
Shostakovich completed the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1932, when he was 26. It adapted a classic Russian novella, depicting a talented, passionate woman, driven by monstrous, oppressive men to murder and tragic suicide in pre-revolutionary Russia. This article deftly summarizes the opera, its initial popularity stifled by official censure, and the effect that this censure had on the rest of Shostakovich’s career. The opera has a number of dramatic orchestral interludes. The interlude between the two scenes of Act II, after the lead has committed her first murder, is written in the Baroque passacaglia form.
The Passacaglia opens with a big, loud, cacophonous chord, then gradually builds tension and tragic energy over a short, repeating figure played by the double basses, cellos, and contrabassoon. Violas, violins, winds, brass, and finally percussion build to a shattering climax, before receding, bit by bit, back to the initial bass figure. Nelsons drew a sumptuous sound from the orchestra, with the fortissimo segments ear-splittingly loud, but never shrill, judiciously balanced and never seeming frantic or out of control. The double basses and contrabassoonist Gregg Henegar played way below the staff, but the growling repeated ground bass stayed consistently sharp, focused, and cleanly articulated. The pianissimo string section delivered a ravishing, shimmering sound, and the group responded to Nelsons’s podium theatrics with passion and involvement. The fade-out was equally exquisite, with bass clarinettist Craig Nordstrom adding a plaintive tragicomic commentary at the end. I could have used a slightly more graded transition between mezzoforte and red-line loud, but overall the piece had quite an impact, and serves well as a concert overture. The BSO has only performed music from Lady Macbeth twice before (in a suite arrangement by James Conlon, in 1996 and 1998); in the wake of the successful staging at the Metropolitan Opera this past November, I’d like to hear more of this opera in Boston.
The orchestra shrank significantly before the arrival of superstar violinist Christian Tetzlaff for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61. Nelsons drew more stunning sound from the orchestra in the concerto. The wind choir set the tone with a judiciously balanced, beautifully blended opening chorale-like segment. The strings articulated the recurrent five-beat motif cleanly and clearly throughout the first movement without disrupting the bigger texture, and the quiet pizzicato segment near the end of the slow movement showed keen rhythmic focus with hushed dynamics. The horns flubbed their entry at the start of the slow movement, but recovered and the horns and brass played in beautiful balance, providing punch when they needed but not overwhelming the rest of the orchestra in louder passages. Nelsons deployed this mostly exquisite playing with brisk tempos, lending skillful support to the soloist, and rhythmic punch, particularly in the syncopated section near the end of the final movement.
Tetzlaff has played this warhorse concerto with the BSO in his 20’s (in 1988, with Seiji Ozawa conducting), at age 40 (in 2006, with James Levine), and now nearing 50 with Nelsons. I gather his interpretation has grown in mastery and control with age; last night he deployed a similarly impressive dynamic range, with barely audible passages that still had enough core to cut through the orchestra, and loud segments that could be heard clearly through an orchestra that didn’t hold back much. Even when Tetzlaff played impossibly fast, double-stopped parts, the phrases were skillfully shaped and kept mostly rhythmically steady (though some of the fastest playing bordered on muddy). The slower segments were played with style and lovely, spinning legato. Tetzlaff showed a keen sense of the soloist’s place in Beethoven’s large-scale conception, making it clear when his solos were ornamenting or commenting on an orchestral line (and the rhythms at those moments were appropriately a little freer), and when he had the lead. His cadenzas drew from Beethoven’s adaptation of the Violin Concerto for a piano soloist. Tetzlaff follows the lead of Eugène Ysaÿe, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, and Gidon Kremer in reverse-engineering the piano cadenzas for violin. Tetzlaff dispatched Beethoven’s wild and woolly writing with effortless runs of double and triple stops. Soloist and orchestra earned a prolonged ovation from the audience. Tetzlaff returned for an encore, playing the Gavotte en Rondeau from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major for solo violin, BWV 1006. This playing could have used a little more grace in the shaping of the underlying dance rhythms, but had an effortless ease that charmed the crowd.
Many orchestra concerts these days are comparable in length to the Passacaglia and the Beethoven concerto, but most of the audience returned for Shostakovich’s colossal Symphony No. 10 in e minor, Op. 93. The work was completed in 1953, and marked Shostakovich’s return to the symphony form after an eight year hiatus broken by the death of Josef Stalin. It has been said that the symphony, particularly its brutish second movement, was a musical portrait of Stalin. I’m not convinced that the music is a straight portrait (when I asked conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, after he conducted a devastating performance of the 10th several years ago, he was dismissive of this idea, too). The enormous first movement has a slow-build multi-sectional structure, a mood shifting between resigned gloom and frantic anguish, and shattering orchestral tuttis alternating with soft, almost chamber music-like segments for much smaller groups of instruments. All of this reminds me of the opening of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, and suggests the lament of a nation ravaged by war and Stalinist repression.
The scherzo-like second movement starts with savage, percussive chords, gathering speed and momentum which calls forth the image of a great steam locomotive, lumbering out of Moscow’s Yaroslavsky station for the Siberian gulags. The piercing snare drum suggesting the clickety-clack of train on tracks, and the faster, more legato string-and-wind segments suggest the wintry Russian landscape sweeping past. The Allegretto third movement introduced the world to the motto D-E flat-C-B natural, whose German language spelling of D-S-C-H served as the composer’s musical signature (there is more on this here and here). It is snuck in at the ends of phrases first, and gains in prominence as the movement develops, offered in alternation with a second motif, E-A-E-D-A, which might be a slowed down version of the horn motive that opens Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, or using Roman characters and solfege spell out E-L(a)-MI-R(e)-A, evoking human love in the form of Elmira Nazirova, a talented student that Shostakovich became infatuated with as he wrote the symphony. The final movement begins with another slow lament, transitioning abruptly to a bubbly, frenetic segment in which the motto D-S-C-H gets louder and louder, closing in triumph to suggest individual defiance in the face of war, privation, and oppression.
Nelsons drew an exemplary performance from the Boston Symphony. Many of the qualities heard earlier in the evening were deployed to striking effect. The string section managed the slow build opening with more exquisitely voiced playing, cleanly articulated by double basses at the very opening, forceful at the climaxes without losing that sense of balance or control. The large brass section joined with a refined sound, gloriously sonorous and rich with overtones but never overwhelming the other sections of the orchestra. Shostakovich gives all kinds of wonderful moments to small groups in the wind section, and there were particularly striking moments handled by a bassoon trio with a snarling, growling contrabassoon from Gregg Henegar and gorgeous duets for clarinetists William Hudgins and Michael Wayne, and for piccolos played by Cynthia Myers and Clint Foreman. One particularly exquisite hushed, controlled moment came near the end of the first movement with oboists John Ferrillo and Mark McEwen soaring over double basses and an eerie swell-recede roll from timpanist Timothy Genis. The orchestra handled all of the first movement’s range of sounds and textures skillfully, rising to crushing climaxes and falling to quiet despair made all the more moving for its lack of mawkish emoting. The first movement’s return to its opening material at the end did not quite leave me with the sense of an epic journey, but the individual moments were all striking. The second movement scherzo had brutally savage rhythmic drive, with impressively soft playing at a galloping pace midway through the movement. The slow movement gave concertmaster Malcolm Lowe a moment in the spotlight with a bleak solo sounding over a hushed, atmospheric orchestra, and the finale had another wave-like roll and build of momentum, with the frantic ending neatly begun by sardonic contrabassoonist Gregg Henegar and ended with D-S-C-H’s pounded with wild enthusiasm by timpanist Timothy Genis.
The Boston Symphony has played surprisingly little Shostakovich in general, with roughly one symphony per season for the past decade, and the last BSO principal conductor to lead a Shostakovich symphony in concert was Seiji Ozawa, in 1984 and 2001. This program would suggest a drastic change in attitude towards this rich musical literature. I look forward to hearing Nelsons’s approaches to large scale structures like this broadening and deepening with time, and I’m encouraged to hear this stunning sound that he has already drawn from the orchestra in his first season.
Last night’s program repeats Friday afternoon and Saturday evening; as usual, the Saturday concert will be broadcast live on WCRB and streamed here. Nelsons returns next week with Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape, a Mozart Piano Concerto with soloist Richard Goode, and Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.