Continuing its exploration under Music Director Andris Nelsons of music from the Russian/Soviet bloc, the BSO presented Georgian composer Giya Kancheli’s Dixi in its U.S. premiere, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus; Sergei Rachmaninov’s beloved Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 with soloist Nikolai Lugansky; and Dmitri Shostakovich’s brooding Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 65. They executed a surprisingly diverse musical smörgåsbord with masterful precision, though more than once, I found myself wondering how all of it added up last night at Symphony Hall.
Born, raised, and trained in Soviet Georgia like his contemporary and friend Alfred Schnittke, Kancheli made his living in the Soviet era by writing film scores. Kancheli moved to Western Europe in 1991, and turned his attention to concert music. Dixi was commissioned in 2009 by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra as a “reflection” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Kancheli assembled a compendium of short Latin phrases recognizable from sacred liturgical texts and famous aphorisms, and scored it for a large chorus and orchestra (more than 100 TFC members mounted the risers behind the orchestra).
The work explores a series of stark contrasts between chorus and orchestra. Hushed pianissimo singing alternated with bone-jangling fortississimo orchestral outbursts. Dark and moody moments were interspersed with segments of fleeting whimsy. Conventional, atmospheric scoring repeatedly gave way to unusual instrument combinations including a harpsichord, an accordion, and a bass guitar. Something of a cyclical structure introduced recurring material three or four times, with the chorus gradually gaining strength and power to match the orchestra.
Prepared by Chorus Pro Musica music director emerita Betsy Burleigh, TFC impressed with gossamer delicacy in the softest segments, and power enough to match an orchestra playing at its loudest. Diction was mostly clean and relatively easy to follow with the program; TFC members Jeni Lynn Cameron (soprano) and Laura Webb (alto) brought off two short solo admirably. The orchestra showed a similar range of expression, and much of the music had the kind of atmospheric haze that hearkens to Kancheli’s film score roots. Yet I couldn’t figure out how it all added up. It’s as though Gertrude Stein assembled a motet salad, with disconnected words and sentiments that fail to build the momentum of the best Latin sacred poetry. And I failed to grasp the relationship of the words to the music; repeated music didn’t necessarily echo repeated text, and made a jumbled text even harder to understand. It makes for an interesting response to Beethoven’s Ninth, but without that latter’s drive and cohesion.
Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the last of his five large-scale works for piano and orchestra, has endured and thrived on the concert stage. Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for solo violin, has inspired more theme-and-variations works than anything I can think of. Rachmaninoff’s 24 variations explore a vivid range of textures, dynamics, and expression, even incorporating another Rachmaninov standby, the Dies irae plainchant from the Requiem service. Soloist Nikolai Lugansky easily vaulted all of Rachmaninov’s prodigious technical hurdles, delivering softer passages with focused clarity, and in the showier faster bits never losing sight of their rhythmic or harmonic underpinnings. He brought lyricism to spare and a hint of rhythmic freedom in the famous, slow 18th variation. The legends say that the composer himself couldn’t play the final variation without steeling his nerves with a glass of crème de menthe. Lugansky tore through with effortless, even restrained ease. Nelsons and the orchestra matched Lugansky step for step, playing a range of dynamics and colors, doing pizzicato in variation 19 with ringing resonance, and playing a solid, balanced forte without swamping Lugansky’s present, steely tone. The work drew warm applause from the Symphony Hall crowd, though there was some disappointment that Lugansky didn’t return for an encore, though with a massive program that stretched over 2 1/2 hours, I’m not sure how much more music we could have had in one evening.
The three works of this program could be thought of as compositions of exile. Kancheli exiled himself from his Georgian homeland after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and wrote Dixi in an extended tonal style in an age that has seen serialism and post-modernism. Sergei Rachmaninov chose exile from his native Russia after the Revolution of 1917, and his compositions look back to an earlier age, even if the compositional techniques reflect modernist experience. Dmitri Shostakovich never left Russia, but in Stalin’s age of oppressive conformism, it’s been argued that he lived an internal exile, always guarded in oral and written conversation even with his closest friends, and using double meanings and hidden messages in his compositions. The Symphony No. 8 in C Minor of 1943 is the bleakest, most alienated by the master, and shares the massive scale of the 7th and 10th Symphonies. Nelsons will be bringing them all to Boston over three seasons.
Op. 65’s first movement works four or five different motifs in a range of combinations and instrumentations to construct a movement by itself equal in length to the Kancheli and Rachmaninov entire works of the first half. The opening “fate” motif is scored for double basses and cellos playing at the growling bottom of their register, so low that it’s fiendishly difficult to get a large string ensemble to play it in tune. The eight double basses and the cellos of the BSO played the “fate” motif in astonishing, exquisitely tuned unison. The violins responded with a keening octave motif with arresting, gripping intent, and string bass and treble came together in a chord spanning octaves and a fifth, impeccably in tune in a way I’ve never heard an orchestra play before. That “fate” motif sounded with disembodied otherworldliness when it was played by the BSO’s extraordinary flute section, disconcerting inversion when the string basses and violins switched parts, and a Reveille-like snap when played by the BSO trumpets. The orchestra played through all of Shostakovich’s wide dynamic range with focus and clarity. The brass snarled, mocked, and played crunchy dissonances with enviable intonation that allowed all manner of partials to ring through Symphony Hall. A particularly devastating moment came about halfway through, when a stentorian climax pulled back to a devastatingly forlorn English horn solo (played movingly by Robert Sheena) while the strings played an impossibly soft but clearly audible tremolo underneath. Equally exquisite was the gorgeously hushed finish of the movement exploring the extremes of instrumental registers.
The second movement Allegretto opened with the strings moving back and forth between infernal march-scherzo rhythms and a muted, seasick uneasiness. The horns’ accompanying figure had an unusual crescendo to an abrupt sforzando cutoff that gave the figure punch and profile, making it instantly recognizable when it recurs in other instrumentations later in the movement. Cynthia Myers played the piccolo solo with jaunty, spiky insouciance. And the orchestra played Shostakovich’s counterpoint with clarity and contour that rendered the counterpoint transparent. As a result, you could hear the weird disjointedness, like at the point when one part of the band plays in 3/4 (three beats to the measure) while another part played 4/4 with the same quarter note beat. This means the measures don’t add up, with the 3/4 starting a new measure as the 4/4 finishes, adding rhythmic counterpoint to melodic in a way that would amuse late Beethoven.
The toccata-like third movement Allegro non troppo opened with an unyielding motoric four-beat ostinato played by the violas with dark, richly evocative drive. Cellos and basses hammered out explosive chords at irregular intervals, and the winds and xylophone keened down an octave above all of this. This material is also subjected to various contrapuntal combinations, gradually pulling back without losing crisp precision, and segued beautifully to a memorable tune, played by the BSO trumpets with sardonic, galloping wit. The ostinato returned, offering percussionist Timothy Genis a chance to show off his impressive timpani chops. The movement proceeds without pause into the fourth movement Largo, a passacaglia in which music of hushed, stark bleakness develops over a recurring bass figure. Every dissonant interval in the passacaglia’s canonical segments sounded with exquisite agony, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda, oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William Hudgins, and flutist Elizabeth Rowe added moving solos to the mood of war-exhausted gloom. That movement then proceeds directly into the final Allegretto, a movement which disappointed Soviet officials by not offering the rabble-rousing, crowd-pleasing climactic finale of the 5th Symphony, but rather a subdued, almost pastoral rondo. The moods shift throughout the movement, with a surprisingly academic string fugue, another drum roll-driven climax, ringing brass chords, and a comical contrabassoon solo (given a wry, droll turn by BSO principal Gregg Henegar). The symphony concludes with gorgeously hushed string playing, ending not with the bang of the 5th, but with a soft whimper.
The playing, the ensemble, the orchestra’s capacity to play loudly yet listen and respond to each other has become quite impressive under Nelsons. But like the Kancheli, the Shostakovich came off as a set of impressive incidents, where masters of the long form like Evgeny Mravinsky or Mstislav Rostropovich or Bernard Haitink would compel more large-scale narrative. Nelsons has transformed the Boston Symphony into a unified, passionate, balanced organism; with time his interpretations of long form masterworks will hopefully deepen.
The BSO repeats the program on Friday afternoon, Saturday evening (broadcast as usual on WCRB 99.5 FM at 8 p.m. and streamable here afterwards). Lugansky leaves after this to perform Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody and Piano Concerto No. 4 in Moscow on March 30th; for the concert on Tuesday March 29th, the BSO will replace the Rachmaninov with a suite from Shostakovich’s film score to Grigory Kosintsev’s Russian-language Hamlet (reviewed here from a performance last month).