in: Reviews

March 25, 2016

BSO’s Evening of Exiles

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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.

Andris Nelsons conducts Nikolai Lugansky and the BSO (Michael Blanchard photo)

Andris Nelsons conducts Nikolai Lugansky and the BSO (Michael Blanchard photo)

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).

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

12 Comments

  1. Great review, Dr. Liu! I agree with everything you said, and more than that, I’m grateful for your honest candor about the deficiencies of concert and the current limitations of Andris Nelsons, who I am a huge fan of. With regards to the Kancheli, you nailed it: “I couldn’t figure out how it all added up.” To our ears also, it did not come together in a way that made the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Enough said.

    I strongly agree with your comments about the Shostakovich. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage because I don’t “know” this work the way I know most pieces–I’ve only heard it once before live and a few times in recordings, and still would not consider it under my belt. But your criticism is right on target: Andris Nelsons, as impressive as he is, has not gotten to the point where he achieves the long line of the work. His performances of sprawling late romantic symphonies tend to be more episodic than not. And as you point out, he may eventually get there. But let’s be honest that at age or whatever age he is, he’s not there yet. And the same can be said of his recent performances of Mahler’s 6th and Bruckner’s 7th.

    I keep coming back to the astonishing performance of Shostakovich’s 4th symphony we heard a number of years ago conducted by Mark Elder. It was a harrowing, visceral, and overwhelming performance that had a coherent arc that ran through the entire work and made a stunning impact (not to be confused with the much less successful more recent performance from Vladimir Jurowski).

    Not to be age-ist (in reverse), but I do think it does come to age. While I believe Andris Nelsons will eventually achieve such results, there is a very good reason why the Mark Elders, Bernard Haitinks, Herbert Blomstedts, etc. of the world achieve the results they achieve. Certainly they are all talented musicians, but they also draw upon skills that only extended experience can bring.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 26, 2016 at 6:58 am

  2. The Kancheli piece more resembled features of the Verdi and Berlioz requiems than any Beethoven.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 26, 2016 at 9:04 am

  3. Curious that nobody has yet mentioned “World War II” in connection with Shostakovich 8. To me this is his true and accurate response to the horrors of the war, and I think Nelsons and the BSO hit exactly the right tones of dread, anger, anguish, horror and pity. In fact, this was the best performance of this work I think I’ve ever heard live; the third movement was the perfect reconstruction of pure terror–I could really imagine what must have been going through my father’s mind on Omaha Beach. I found no special issues of long-range planning in Nelsons’s reading; the overall emotional impact and the excellence of the playing swept all cavils away.

    I quite agree, though, with the reaction to the Kancheli; it struck me in places as a kind of mash-up of Oedipus Rex and Carmina Burana, without a unifying musical structure to bind the string of aphorisms. Very odd piece. The Rachmaninoff seemed to me to suffer from the attention Nelsons paid to the other two works; it didn’t sparkle, and while Lugansky clearly had the necessary chops, his playing was a bit imprecise in articulation.

    Comment by Vance Koven — March 26, 2016 at 11:42 am

  4. I think in a piece of such (personal) trauma, so reflective, filled with coded/shadowed commentaries and emotional depth, the balance between structure and intimacy/individual moments of intense communication must be taken into consideration. There were old masters who concentrated on the former giving us intellectually satisfying readings but a bit detached and shallow/remote in the emotional yearning aspects. Haitink ( balanced and surreal ) and Mravinsky ( intense precise cold sharp fire ), while very different, were in that category. Personally I thought Nelsons and the BSO struck the right note until the transition from the heart wrenching Largo to the finale. There there was a relaxation that went a bit wayward to this listener. To his credit, Nelsons quickly got back on track and the coda was both transcendent and full of resignation. Nelsons is a risk taker and every performance is different. I am going back to hear him again tonight.Nonetheless it was still a harrowing and great “life” and musical experience Thursday night. The communication Nelsons achieved was just so rich and enormous.

    Comment by Brucknerliebhaber — March 26, 2016 at 2:29 pm

  5. Re Vance’s excellent comment: on Friday afternoon the Rhapsody sparkled – almost blinding, in fact! – and Nikolai Lugansky’s articulation could not have been more precise. My guess is it took one more performance for everyone to bring this piece off.

    Comment by nimitta — March 26, 2016 at 2:57 pm

  6. Thanks to comments from a number of friends we saw at the Friday BMOP concert of del Tredici’s Alice, who all felt the Shostakovich was superb and unforgettable, we opted to forego Saturday night plans to go to that performance. It was one of the outstanding concerts of our long lives. This review is learned and extremely interesting, but I do wish Liu had dwelt a bit on the meaning. It was devastating, and hardly could it be called controversial. Seemed mighty clear to us. This morning, I watched a YouTube version the middle movement with Haitink, interspersed with photos of Stalin, militaristic marches, scenes of wartime devastation on civilian populations…

    Albeit Nelsons was only when the Iron curtain fell, he surely must have been affected, as certainly his parents were, by its constrained political and cultural life. So between experience and being given such a superb string section (which has such an important part in Shostakovich and especially this piece with long passages solely of strings) as has the BSO, Nelsons, it seems to me, came of age in this performance. He must be in heaven. Oddly enough, after a performance of this, taking us through a version of hell, we end up feeling in heaven. Such is catharis.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — March 27, 2016 at 12:49 pm

  7. I wonder if any of BMInt’s readers attended and remember the searing and undeniably informed performances with Rostropovich and the BSO from February, 1977? There one heard all of the raw-edged lamentoso of the Shostakovich Eighth that Nelsons rounded off – albeit beautifully – Saturday night. I missed the acidic component inherent in the second and third movements, the savagery. I found that the overall effect of this – the deepest and most disquieting of this composer’s symphonies, with its several dark sojourns through the valley of the shadow of death with hardly any light at the end of the path – mostly memorable for the superb playing of the BSO, and for Nelson’s embrace of the composer’s ethos, which our Music Director seems to have almost fully absorbed. I agree with Mogulmeister- he surely will ultimately attain the full reckoning of this composer’s agonized soul. On another note, Lugansky and Nelsons achieved an ideal Rachmaninoff Rhapsody Saturday night, with superb execution from the pianist and wonderfully nuanced accompanying from Nelsons and the BSO. Only a bit more etching of the orchestra parts would have improved this performance. And, FWIW, place me in the camp of the curious for the Kancheli. After minutes, I tuned it out; rare for me to do this, but the effort to discern something meaningful in this music was just too great, well sung as it was by the Betsy Burleigh-trained TFC. An unconnected question: when did the BSO sanction the bringing of glass bottles into the hall? A fabulous pianissimo was spoiled last night by someone knocking over an empty with intrusive and clangorous results. Surely this needs rethinking. But even that interruption couldn’t spoil the spell spun by that Shostakovich Eighth – what a haunting it is to the mind and memory!

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — March 27, 2016 at 1:09 pm

  8. Richard Dyer’s Feb review of that performance is superb — spot-on and well worth looking up in the Globe archives.

    Comment by david moran — March 27, 2016 at 5:13 pm

  9. My apologies for not delving into greater depth about the sources of inspiration of the Shostakovich 8th. It was an oversight that I do regret, though personally, I’m not sure I’m prepared to chalk it all up to World War II. A recurring theme in Shostakovich’s wartime music is a sense of mourning both for the depredations inflicted by Hitler’s Wehrmacht and by the atrocities that Stalin perpetrated upon his own people. How much of any given lament is about external war, and how much about the internal battle is open to question. I also feel that at some point, sooner or later, this music has to speak for itself, independent of biographical elements (so, the story about Napoleon is interesting in considering Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, but I don’t think anybody thinks about Napoleon any more when hearing the Eroica).

    Perhaps I should also enlarge somewhat on what I find missing in the performance, spectacularly well played and moment-to-moment moving as it was. A number of musicians and conductors have made the suggestion to me that every great piece (let’s say movement, in the case of the enormous first movement of the Shostakovich) needs to have one climax, one peak that everything else points towards. The scores of the symphony are no longer public domain, but I assume there are multiple places where the score marks fortissimo or louder. My problem with this performance (and the 10th from last season) is that the volume got cranked up to maximum every time one of these loud points is reached. If you keep cranking the volume and emotional intensity up to(tip of the hat to This is Spinal Tap), at some point sooner or later, you start losing sight of the journey, and start tuning out. And to my ears, this orchestra keeps cranking it to 11, when it should hit once.

    Haitink may not be the most emotionally demonstrative conductor, but his control over dynamics, growth, and peaks is staggering. Rostropovich was not the greatest pure technician, but his heart and his emotional intensity were never in doubt, and his grasp of the architecture of a Shostakovich symphony was also crystal clear. I got to hear Rostropovich conduct the 10th with the Chicago Symphony, just a few years before his death, and that first movement felt like living through a Dostoevsky novel, but with the construction just as clear as the emotion. So, Nelsons has already managed to do extraordinary things with this orchestra, and give the orchestra’s sound an intoxicating impact that I haven’t heard before. All the more reason to push to call for raising things one level higher.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — March 27, 2016 at 11:38 pm

  10. My apologies for not delving into greater depth about the sources of inspiration of the Shostakovich 8th. It was an oversight that I do regret, though personally, I’m not sure I’m prepared to chalk it all up to World War II. A recurring theme in Shostakovich’s wartime music is a sense of mourning both for the depredations inflicted by Hitler’s Wehrmacht and by the atrocities that Stalin perpetrated upon his own people. How much of any given lament is about external war, and how much about the internal battle is open to question. I also feel that at some point, sooner or later, this music has to speak for itself, independent of biographical elements (so, the story about Napoleon is interesting in considering Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, but I don’t think anybody thinks about Napoleon any more when hearing the Eroica).

    Perhaps I should also enlarge somewhat on what I find missing in the performance, spectacularly well played and moment-to-moment moving as it was. A number of musicians and conductors have made the suggestion to me that every great piece (let’s say movement, in the case of the enormous first movement of the Shostakovich) needs to have one climax, one peak that everything else points towards. The scores of the symphony are no longer public domain, but I assume there are multiple places where the score marks fortissimo or louder. My problem with this performance (and the 10th from last season) is that the volume got cranked up to maximum every time one of these loud points is reached. If you keep cranking the volume and emotional intensity up to

    (tip of the hat to This is Spinal Tap), at some point sooner or later, you start losing sight of the journey, and start tuning out. And to my ears, this orchestra keeps cranking it to 11, when it should hit once.

    Haitink may not be the most emotionally demonstrative conductor, but his control over dynamics, growth, and peaks is staggering. Rostropovich was not the greatest pure technician, but his heart and his emotional intensity were never in doubt, and his grasp of the architecture of a Shostakovich symphony was also crystal clear. I got to hear Rostropovich conduct the 10th with the Chicago Symphony, just a few years before his death, and that first movement felt like living through a Dostoevsky novel, but with the construction just as clear as the emotion. So, Nelsons has already managed to do extraordinary things with this orchestra, and give the orchestra’s sound an intoxicating impact that I haven’t heard before. All the more reason to push to call for raising things one level higher.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — March 27,

    What a wonderful addition to the comments. Yes, indeed, the relationship between external war (or other atrocities) and internal battles is the crux. Hence, catharsis. I first heard the Shostakovich 10th on my radio (allowed only in our senior year at good ole Northfield School for Girls) in 1953?4?, and feeling particularly lonely at the time, it was devastating. To your point. External biographical elements might not have to be relevant to listening, but personal ones certainly are, for this close-to-octogenarian.

    And I agree that Nelsons goes in for ffffff a bit too frequently, hampering an overall effect. Certainly a sign of young people his age versus, say, someone of mine?

    Thanks for the additional comment, Mr. Liu. And for the interesting comparisons, Haitink, Rostropovich, & Nelsons.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — March 28, 2016 at 9:16 am

  11. I did not go to the concert.

    Often I lament on the fact that in music world people like sth they really don’t have the correct understanding. The example I use frequently is Mahler. But there are many Shostakovich enthusiasts as well, most of who are in the same league.

    Actually I only wanted to say this because I saw a Bruckner name in the comment section. I have never seen his name mentioned when S8 is analyzed/introduced. It is so obvious to me that Bruckner themes were quoted and distorted in S8 (in a very distasteful way, I may add). And that part is crucial in understanding his music, even though I don’t like. (Please quote my comment, if you are writing a paper)

    There was a famous joke about Shostakovich.
    A young composer came to Shostakovich for help, ‘people’s composer, please give me some idea in composing. If I can’t composed anything good, Comrade Stalin will have me shot.’
    S seriously suggested, ‘give him my first symphony. He won’t know.’
    Finally the young composer was convinced. He presented it to Stalin.
    Stalin looked at the score and was furious, ‘shoot him!!!’. Poor man was shot.
    Afterwards, officers asked Stalin why. Stalin was still angry and raged, ‘He copied it. He thought I would not know….’
    ….
    Stalin continued, ‘That was Beethoven’s 5th..’
    (Hahahaha)

    The many jokes are only for simple minded. If one think harder, this joke becomes sour. Shostakovich used so much music material from others…

    Comment by Thorsten — March 31, 2016 at 2:28 pm

  12. BTW, James’ name spelling is not consistent.

    Schostakowitsch or Shostakovich

    Web browser suggested Shostakovitch, but the t seems to be extra.

    Comment by Thorsten — March 31, 2016 at 2:36 pm

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