Flush from a second consecutive Grammy, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented their latest all-Russian program in their multi-season survey of Shostakovich symphonies. The largest and perhaps most notorious of these works, the Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60, was paired with the world premiere of the Triple Concerto of Sofia Gubaidulina. Last night, the BSO reached a new high-water mark with its harrowing performance on music from the edge of war.
The concert began with Gubaidulina’s Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Bayan, co-commissioned by the BSO and the North German Radio Philharmonic of Hannover. Swiss bayanist Elsbeth Moser, a longtime Gubaidulina collaborator, inspired the composition and is the work’s dedicatee. She mounted a platform next to the conductor’s podium alongside young Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh, and Latvian violinist Baiba Skride. The work began with a dense tone cluster on the bayan, making for a rich and strange sound. Double basses joined in, with the lowest end of their register reminding me of nothing quite like humpback whale song. Then Krijgh and Skride took turns playing an overtone series, the rising sets of pitches that derive from the harmonics of the base pitch. This was followed by a series of exchanges between orchestra and soloists, occasionally punctuated by the menacing whirring of gongs and snare drum. The orchestral parts seemed to concentrate either on the very highest notes (piccolo, flutes, triangle) or the very lowest (string basses, contrabassoon, a trio of trombones and two tubas). Skride soared up and played harmonics that reached up into dog-whistle range, and Moser added outbursts of tone clusters moving up and down the bayan’s register. The work reversed the opening material with high orchestra parts, a falling overtone series, then a big roaring finish. It was a work filled with the kind of sonic atmospherics that you’d expect from a veteran film score composer like Gubaidulina, and between the presence of three soloists, women from different countries and different generations, the exploration of unusual instrument combinations and the extremes of orchestral tessitura made for a fascinating probing of music’s margins. The crowd registered warm approval, and rose to its feet when the 85-year-old composer stepped to the front to take a bow.
Dmitri Shostakovich worked on his Symphony No. 7 as his hometown of Leningrad (once again St. Petersburg) lay under a brutal Nazi siege that killed half of its residents. It became a potent symbol of Russian (and later Allied) defiance of Fascist oppression. However, some accounts suggest that Shostakovich was working on the symphony for a full year before Hitler sent the Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union. In Solomon Volkov’s controversial Testimony, Shostakovich supposedly states that the symphony describes a city that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off.
The main reason for the colossal scale of the Symphony No. 7 is the massive opening movement, an ambitious Allegretto, which opens with a sonata form-inspired working of two contrasting thematic groups. It begins with a stirring unison string tune accompanied by martial trumpet-and-drum rhythms. The second subject starts with a squeezebox-style accompanying pattern divided between cellos and violas, then the first violins play a forlorn theme, echoed by the wind choir led by the oboe. The piccolo rounds out what should be enough material for a significant movement. But then, a snare drum starts rattling steadily away. A faint, jaunty melody emerges, string instruments played barely audibly, then gets repeated over and over again, picking up thicker orchestration, a bit of canonic counterpoint, and other thematic material, gathering momentum over twelve repetitions and over 10 minutes. As the melody surges in power and force, it begins to lurch and stagger like a drunkard, no longer banal or laughable but dangerous and lethal.
I had heard this symphony a few times before (including the BSO’s last performance in 1995), and this middle section had always struck me as maudlin and melodramatic. But I returned to this piece in the wake of the recent political turmoil, I heard a tune so banal it invites derision. But as the tune gets repeated incessantly and amplifies, it overwhelms everything in its path The symphony was transformed in my ears from a grotesque mash-up of Bolero and the 1812 Overture into musical journalism, a description of how totalitarian regimes come to power, and music that suits our dark times.
The BSO responded to this movement magnificently, playing the opening string theme with passion and urgency, managing the slow burn crescendo of the totalitarian theme with impressive and inexorable dynamic control, and exploring the chaos and devastation left in the wake of the invasion with a frank, dry-eyed bleakness. The opening section offered a number of short but piquant solo segments for BSO piccolo player Cynthia Meyers. The devastation segment offered a lovely solo moment for principal flautist Elizabeth Rowe and a particularly vulnerable, extended solo for principal bassoonist Richard Svoboda. The opening movement pulled back to a hushed pianissimo with exquisitely focused string playing, and a lovely, subtle but menacing return of snare drum and jaunty theme played by principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs with a mute to make it sound like it came from miles away.
The second movement Moderato passes for a Minuet/Scherzo form, and leavens the first movement with the work’s one bit of gallows humor. It starts with the irregular rhythm of the violin theme over a slow and steady flow of short, separated notes from the lower strings. Oboist John Ferrillo floated a melancholy solo over this string counterpoint, then handed it off ably to English hornist Robert Sheena. The middle section was louder, cruder, marked by a relentlessly rhythmic xylophone figure, over which principal clarinetist William Hudgins captured Shostakovich’s characteristic sardonic wit. The movement transitions back to the opening material and ends with another stunning, gentle string playout.
The Adagio third movement constitutes a the great lamentation for Leningrad’s many dead, particularly in Leonard Bernstein’s over-the-top Chicago Symphony recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Nelsons and the BSO did not quite reach for Bernstein’s Mahlerian emotional heights, but they beautifully balances the opening chorale figure between winds and horns, and the strings gave out their keening lamentations with impressively unified intonation and phrasing. Flautists Rowe and Clint Foreman dueted hauntingly over clarinet chords, before the chorale and mourning segments came in a hair-raisingly hushed pianissimo. This gave way to another brutal middle section, with syncopated brass reminding me of the theme to the I, Claudius TV series. The opening material returns in a few intriguing alternate orchestrations, including the chorale tune played at the highest end of the lowest wind instruments (bassoons and clarinets) and a lush, gorgeous lament from the violas.
This movement segued directly from its quiet ending to the hushed string figure over pedal point string bass that opens the final movement Allegro non troppo. This material gathered slowly in strength and power, similar to the opening movement but here giving more of a sense of defiantly manning the barricades. Then a dotted rhythm, an almost Handelian musical figure, waxes and wanes in power, mired for a while in seemingly aimless circles before the strings escalate gradually in dynamics and intensity. For the build-up to the conclusion, Nelsons took a tempo slower than those that I’ve heard in other interpretations, generating a sense of a people who are weary, bruised, and battered but continue fighting nonetheless, and made the final triumph feel hard-earned. And the final triumph was resplendent indeed, one of Shostakovich’s biggest and brightest blazes of sonic glory. The BSO played this with ear-splitting brilliance, earning enthusiastic roars from the audience and bringing the crowd rapidly to its feet for a well-deserved and prolonged ovation. All in all, it made for yet another high extraordinary high point in Nelsons’s ongoing exploration of a composer whose music has become unexpectedly timely.
The orchestra repeats this concert on Friday afternoon and Saturday evening before taking it to Carnegie Hall along with the programs of the last two weeks. They return to Boston on Friday, March 10, when conductor Sakari Oramo, pianist Krill Gerstein, and the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus present Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3 and Busoni’s enormous, 70-minute Piano Concerto in C Major.