BMInt readers are not the only music-lovers who know that Deutsche Grammophon has already released recordings from Andris Nelsons’s massive journey through the works of Shostakovich with the Boston Symphony, and that the first, covering the Fifth, Eighth, Ninth symphonies, won a Grammy last year. This week’s BSO concert contains the next installments of the cycle, the brief Festive Overture and the oddly shaped Sixth Symphony, and as with the others, DG is recording live.
The performances on Thursday night were definitive BSO / Nelsons Shostakovich, featuring rich and powerful orchestral sonority and gorgeous solo playing. Nelsons’s interpretations are controlled but not domineering: athletic, virtuosic, lithe and responsive. The Festive Overture opened the evening with a perfectly coordinated blaze of brass that was authoritative and warm, loud without shouting, giving way to a giddy sprint the rest of the way. At the other end of the night, the long brooding opening movement of the symphony unfolded inexorably. The movement is often not dense, made up of long solos and dialogues, but it never sounded thin, thanks to the sheer beauty of sound produced, especially by the winds and brass (almost everyone in the back rows was given a bow at the end of the performance).
The Sixth is an awkward piece, its dark and massive first movement followed by two much briefer movements, the second an occasionally breezy Allegro and the third a brawling, wild Presto. Many commentators have found it difficult to reconcile the fact that they are all parts of the same work, and this performance didn’t make the relationships any clearer. While Nelsons and the BSO have a definitive style, they do not always produce definitive Shostakovich: the fast movements were agitating and exciting, but balances were often not finely calibrated. Strings often sounded underpowered when assuming the melody, and tempos sometimes felt breathless. The orchestra never faltered, but moments got missed. The secondary melody in the Overture, with its little jazzy turn, sped past without getting a chance to make an impression, and the fast movements in the Symphony became often satisfyingly violent but at times blunt and unthinking. To be sure, there were many lovely moments, such as the gossamer scales that appear and then evaporate to end the second movement. I don’t doubt that these were intentional decisions, and they did help dispel the long shadow cast by the first movement, but it was their finest achievement on this night.
There was a soloist on the program too, with a big name: Anne-Sophie Mutter. Before the intermission she gave us a version of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that is more interesting to write about than to hear. Right from the start there were unusual portamenti and expressive distortions that threatened to leave the realm of rubato and enter that of arrhythmia, with a touch of vinegar in her tone. At any given moment something interesting was going on: a rush ahead or behind, a sudden dynamic change, a frantic virtuoso outburst. The first movement was continually mannered, the second less so but at times the solo part nearly inaudible. The fireworks in the third movement impressed without controversy. The piece is a little shaggy to begin with, and nothing was done to rein that in: for all the minute-to-minute activity, it stretched on.
Happily, we got to hear her play again after intermission, in Takemitsu’s reflective encomium Nostalghia: In Memory of Andrei Tarkovsky. This tribute to a film director known for great visual beauty, languorous pacing, and particular love for the natural world is a quarter-hour of waves of cloudy harmony. The solo part speaks in long lines, which regularly ascend to the top of the instruments’ range and disappear, only to start over. It depicts striving for release disturbed occasionally by moments of agitation. Mutter played with deep emotion but eschewed rhetoric, a plainspoken, self-effacing performance. In a night filled with pyrotechnics and wild gestures, the best moments came when time moved slowly and the music revealed itself only gradually.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.