The Boston Symphony Orchestra launched its 135th season with an all-Russian program. Celebrating the start of his second season as the BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, led Shostakovich’s Symphony #9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70; Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 with soloist Evgeny Kissin; and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, in grand style, drawing a hedonistically opulent sound; the honeymoon between conductor and ensemble abides.
Last season saw a triumphant performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony #10 (reviewed here) and a recording deal with Deutsche Grammophon in which Nelsons leads the BSO in concert performances of Symphonies 5 through 10. Nelsons cemented the growing relationship between the orchestra and Shostakovich’s music by offering Symphony #9 as the opening work in the gala. This symphony received its U.S. premiere at a Tanglewood concert in 1946 under Serge Koussevitzky. The BSO has only programmed it once since then, in 1962. It does stand apart from Shostakovich’s wartime output. Many anticipated that a symphony written at the end of World War II, with the same number 9 that inspired large-scale masterworks from Beethoven, Schubert, Dvořák, Bruckner, and Mahler would inspire an ambitious score from the Soviet Union’s “court composer.” Shostakovich started just such a score with chorus and orchestra, but tossed the sketches aside, instead creating a breezy, short (under half an hour), five movement work. The structure is almost Classical; it’s one of the few Shostakovich symphonies with a full first movement exposition repeat, and the brooding Mahlerian angst and world-weariness is replaced by Shostakovich’s characteristic sardonic wit.
Last night’s performance showcased the ravishing range of sound that Nelsons draws from the BSO. It showed wide dynamic range, starting with a sprightly, beautifully hushed and shaped sound, building up to earsplitting climaxes and pulling back to barely audible but skillfully executed endings. The strings had a full, well rounded tone (particularly memorable in the lurching waltz-like second subject of the second movement) and moved as with one breath and mind. The winds luxuriated in Shostakovich’s range of unconventional orchestrations and sound textures. The brass choir had a full, gleaming tone, but listened carefully to the rest of the orchestra, producing a sound that blended beautifully with the other sections rather than overpowering them.
Conductor and orchestra explored Shostakovich’s schizoid contrasts of mood. In the first movement, they struck a balance between earnest, impassioned string playing (reminiscent of the war-weary Symphony #7) and impudently banal brass outbursts. Handoffs of musical material between sections were executed flawlessly.
The ensemble handled transitions between the third, fourth, and fifth movements (played without pause) beautifully, moving from will-o-wispish fleetness in the third movement to the brooding foreboding of the fourth. The finale emerged from the fourth at a slower tempo than is usually played, and veered between a Prokofiev-like sleigh ride, a lilt reminiscent of the finale of Schubert’s Symphony #9, and the ominous minor key intrusions reminding us that the world of Shostakovich’s war symphonies was never that far off. The slow starting tempo allowed for a gradual acceleration that was marvelously effective.
On top of the marvelous ensemble sound, the BSO rendered Shostakovich’s many solo moments with stylish panache. Cynthia Myers dug into the piccolo solo at the start of the first movement with spiky insouciance. William Hudgins played the clarinet solo opening the second movement in a wonderfully weird, wayward fashion, in equal parts shell-shocked combat veteran and pranksterish street busker. First trumpet Thomas Rolfs had a jaunty solo in the third movement and Richard Svoboda played the bassoon solo of the fourth movement with plaintive angst over a hushed bed of violas and double basses.
I look forward to the commercial release of the Shostakovich; it should be a remarkable showcase for the luxurious, precise music that orchestra and Nelsons have created together, and bodes well for the additional Shostakovich works to come.
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 received its world premiere at the Boston Music Hall in 1875with B. J Land conducting and Hans von Bülow as soloist. The BSO took up the warhorse in 1883. This is the second set of performances of this concerto with superstar soloist Evgeny Kissin (the first set was a full two decades ago at Carnegie Hall).
Kissin hasn’t lost his youthful demeanor (though his Einsteinian shock of hair is gone), or his awkward stage presence, eternally uncomfortable with public adulation and ever focused on the music. The playing didn’t have the heaven-storming thundering that turned up in his youth, and there was something oddly disconnected about the playing in the first movement. Nelsons’s full and firm orchestra sound swamped out Kissin’s octaves in the famous opening, and piano and orchestra didn’t synchronize ideally in their interchanges. The middle movement seemed to work better, with Nelsons imparting a gentle lilt to the accompaniment as Kissin took pianistic flight near the end. The finale restored Kissin’s legendary sparkle, interpretive flair, and personality, and quieter, faster runs up and down the keyboard cut through the big BSO sound effortlessly. I wonder if some adjustment was made by soloist or conductor, or if Kissin got over pre-performance jitters; it will be interesting to see if the pattern holds in subsequent performances.
The orchestra, for its part, delivered more lush, opulent sound, with the same wide dynamic range, more fine solo work from the BSO’s assistant principals, including flavorful oboe from Keisuke Wakao, a beautifully paced, leisurely flute solo from Clint Foreman and a soulful cello lick from Martha Babcock.
The first and final movements drew standing ovations from the capacity crowd, and Kissin returned to play an encore. I didn’t recognize the piece, a varied harmonization of a lilting folk-like tune; some post-concert digging suggests it might be Tchaikovsky’s Natha-Waltz, Op. 51, No. 4.
The Symphonic Dances Op. 45 is a work from 1940 by Sergei Rachmaninov. It proved to be his last large piece; a busy concert career in the United States, then progressive debility and death from melanoma kept him from composing for the last three years of his life. The premiere was given by Rachmaninov’s beloved Philadelphia Orchestra, and the BSO didn’t program it until 1974. Since then it was performed in 2014 in performances led by Robert Spano (reviewed here) and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Nelsons (reviewed here).
The work certainly suits Nelsons’s personality well, with its richly varied textures and instrumental combinations, its blend of Russian soulfulness and jazzy modernism, and its many opportunities to display the BSO’s soloist strengths and magnificent ensemble. The first movement evoked a Prokofiev-like soundscape, with an alto saxophone blending in skillfully with the wind ensemble, a striking set of dramatic pauses in the phrase as the orchestra made the transition to the recapitulation, and a stunningly hushed string play-out at the movement’s end.
The second movement is a twisted waltz with a freely shifting tempo rubato, and Nelsons gave the movement an organic ebbing and flowing pace. The repeat of the introductory material gave concertmaster Malcolm Lowe a chance to shine with a droll but vibrant solo. The final movement had a jaunty, almost Spanish feel, with a curious juxtaposition between the Gregorian Dies irae plainchant from the Requiem text and a melodic figure taken from the ninth movement of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, which tells the story of Christ’s resurrection. Both tunes have a starkly different effect when moved from human voices to strings and brass, and the work was filled with stark contrasts, culminating in a gong crash which Nelsons allowed to die out slowly before welcoming audience applause.
The concert confirms that the orchestra has developed a hedonistically rich sound under Maestro Nelsons which harkens back to the Koussevitzky years. It’s encouraging to see that that sound has been preserved after the honeymoon of the first season together. With Nelsons renewed by contract through 2022, we should be in for some memorable music making at Symphony Hall.
The program repeats today at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Both concerts are sold out at the web site, but individual tickets may be available at the box office. It will be broadcast on WCRB on Saturday night.
Nelsons will remain in Boston for three weeks, with upcoming programs to include Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3 with soloist Lars Vogt, Brahms’s Symphony #2, and a concert performance of Richard Strauss’s Elektra with powerhouse dramatic soprano Christine Goerke in the title role. Nelsons returns on November 19th, with a program that will include Shostakovich’s Symphony #5.