The Boston Symphony Orchestra ended its season with a sell-out (reprises remain for this afternoon and Saturday night). Music Director Andris Nelsons continued his survey of the orchestral music of Dmitri Shostakovich with a suite taken from the incidental music to a stage production of King Lear, Op. 58a. Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes joined for Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 40, and soprano Kristine Opolais for Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G Major. Absent bombast or pomp, this outing delivered instead, relatively quiet, restrained works that displayed the BSO’s newfound mastery of muted dynamics and sublime nuance.
Shostakovich had a lifelong fascination with the oeuvre of Shakespeare, whose mastery of poetry and characterization was acknowledged even by the Soviet censors. The plays bard’s plays gave Shostakovich rare license to explore the gulf between personal truth and political reality the perilous era of unrestricted, centralized power. He wrote music to accompany a 1940 stage production of King Lear directed by a favorite collaborator, director Grigory Kozintsev. Three decades later, he would revisit the play and create a different score for Kozintsev’s magnificent cinematic adaptation. Tonight’s selections drew from the 1940 stage production.
An orchestral Introduction begins with impressive tremolo swells and decrescendos, moving into gripping but hushed string, wind, and brass playing. Cordelia’s Ballad starts with a gently pulsing piano and pizzicato string sound before a melancholy tune, originally sung by a mezzo-soprano, instead came with moving pathos from clarinetist William Hudgins. A series of snare drum-and-brass fanfares alternated with other snippets from the play. Returning from the Hunt had a jaunty, insouciant tune played by the horns. The Approach of the Storm had eerie foreboding in the percussive horns and a keening unison string figure that presaged the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. The Scene on the Steppe featured a sardonic slow march, taken with delicious drollness by bassoonists Richard Svoboda and Suzanne Nelsen, as the strings played in spooky col legno fashion (where the wood of the bows slaps the strings). Gloucester’s Blinding possesses the drama one might expect, with a largely homophonic, anguished melody played by strings, winds, and brass over pounding timpani. The Military Camp’s particularly atmospheric bass drum playing by Matthew McKay, came across as so gorgeously hushed as to be more felt than heard; the melody could be characterized as a motley mix of Cordelia’s melancholy tune in the plaintive clarinets, the dry wit of the bassoons, and muted trumpets. Insistent timpani pounding from Timothy Genis grounded the final March underneath a surprisingly bright brass-and-strings tune—considering its place at the end of Shakespeare’s heartbreaking play. Then the sarcastic bassoons intervene before the work closes on the faintest of whispers. Within the suite’s mezzoforte dynamic, Nelsons and the Boston Symphony found a broad range of shadings and tone colors that set the mood for the evening.
The BSO have only played Rachmaninov’s fourth and final piano concerto twice in the past. It’s the most modern of his works, and doesn’t have the big-boned, sweeping arcs of the more popular second and third examples. I have struggled for years to like this piece, listening to classic recordings by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and the composer himself as soloists. Last night Andsnes’s take came as a revelation. He has chops to spare to negotiate Rachmaninov’s challenges, but more important, he has the brains and heart to join transitions seamlessly. Nelsons drew gorgeous, flavorful, specifically shaped tones from the orchestra without ever drowning out the soloist. There were lovely solo turns from flutist Elizabeth Ostling, oboist Mark McEwen, and English hornist Robert Sheena in the first movement, shimmering pianissimo string playing in the jazzy theme-and-variations slow movement, and echoes of Shostakovich’s sardonic style in the finale. Pianist and orchestra members exchanged solo and accompanying figures with effortless ease. All the segments joined together beautifully, and a concerto that can sometimes sound like disconnected incidents cunningly cohered. A thrillingly fast coda led to a scintillating finish and a well-deserved standing ovation.
Mahler’s Fourth Symphony showed more of the orchestra’s brilliance at soft playing and layered nuance. The first movement started almost too fast for the unison cello-and-bass figure, though there was plenty of tempo flexibility, with stretching and slowing at transitional points, and changes of pace for different sections. Principal horn James Somerville offered particularly memorable and beautifully shaped solos, and all the sections of the orchestra played Mahler’s multiple simultaneous tunes and dense counterpoint with exemplary transparency. More than once, the strands with restless seething. In addition, Nelsons management of the transitions lent narrative coherence to this expansive movement. The final phrase of the first movement memorably began painfully slow and hushed soft, and steadily picked up speed and volume to close with a bang.
In the second movement Scherzo the scordatura of Malcom Lowe’s mesmerizing devil’s fiddle, constituted but one strand of a continuing rich contrapuntal fabric. The first Trio had a heavy-footed lilt to it, and a skillful rhythmic handoff back to James Somerville, whose horn articulated the Scherzo reprise. In the final movement’s second Trio’s, associate concertmistress Tamara Smirnova entered into a duet with Lowe’s devil.
The double-variation slow movement opened with a beautifully hushed hymn-like tune played first by the low strings, then joined by second violins, then first violins, then winds and brass. The melody moved with a stately grace, but fast enough that it retained shape. After a minor-key detour from the soulful oboe of John Ferillo, the chorale tune returned in double time, and in other forms. Nelsons judged the transitions with the same joiner’s skill that characterized the other movements. A blazing triumphal outburst in E major gave the BSO a chance to show their breathtaking fortissimo sound, then motifs could be heard anticipating the final movement, as soloist Kristine Opolais took the stage.
The attacca final movement sets a poem about “Das himmlische Leben” (Life in Heaven) from the folk collection of poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The German text depicts a heavenly feast attended by multiple saints with a wide-eyed, childlike innocence. The five stanzas of the poem are separated by segments that recall musical motifs from the first movement. And if there’s anything that disappointed me about this program, it was the singing. Opolais produces a gorgeous, ringing, consistent vocal tone through all of her vocal registers, but I had difficulty making out more than half of the words. And the different sections of the poem were sung with a similar tone and phrasing, with the exception of a shimmering, hushed piano start to the final stanza. The orchestra continued its brilliant playing, ending on a hushed note of affirmation that drew another standing ovation from the capacity crowd.
The orchestra has now played Shostakovich’s middle six symphonies and incidental music from two Shakespeare plays and a Shakespeare-inspired opera. In one of these programs (HERE) I observed the BSO played thrillingly at hushed and ear-splittingly loud dynamics, but didn’t have the same exquisite sense at levels between the extremes, and that large scale dramatic works came off as a string of incidents. I take back any criticism along those lines here; the group played with marvelous detail and shading and told three different compelling musical stories. And Shostakovich may have felt like an add-on, but its placement at the opening made it easier to hear the elements shared with Rachmaninov and Mahler. I’m excited to hear how the BSO will approach the Fourth, Eleventh, and Fourteenth Symphonies next season.
Saturday’s performance will also be broadcast and streamed on WCRB. Andsnes joins the Boston Symphony Chamber Players for Shostakovich’s harrowing Piano Trio No. 2 and more on Sunday at 3 p.m. at Jordan Hall; then the Boston Pops season begins.