For the second time in two weeks, a BSO program that looked conventional on paper sprang pleasant surprises. Thursday’s pairing began with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4; it opens, unconventionally, with the piano alone, and for the next half-hour piano and orchestra have a running conversation, or perhaps argument. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905) substitutes 19th-century revolutionary songs for the usual sonata form. It purports to be a paean to the Russian Revolution of 1905, in which disgruntled peasants, factory workers, soldiers, sailors, and intellectuals compelled Tsar Nicholas II to accept a degree of reform. But as is usually the case with Shostakovich, the music eludes easy description.
The concerto and the symphony have something else in common: both start by evoking bells and Russian Orthodox chant. At least, that’s how the Beethoven has always struck me. The pianist begins the Allegro moderato with quiet, almost shy quavers; the orchestra follows suit. This opening theme becomes majestic, but when the piano returns, it’s overflowing with ideas, and over the next 17 or 18 minutes the orchestra struggles to keep up. The orchestra starts the 72-measure Andante con moto with a forceful pronouncement; the piano answers with chaste deference. As the two go back and forth, the orchestra softens, its anger subsides; the piano, always una corda, gradually takes control. Yet it’s the orchestra that starts off the rollicking Rondo finale, and it holds its own throughout the movement, an equal partner at last.
Andris Nelsons chose the 45-year-old British pianist Paul Lewis as his soloist. Lewis spent the better part of his 20s studying with Alfred Brendel, and that showed in the intellectual rigor of his performance, which echoed his 2010 Harmonia Mundi recording with Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Yet Lewis’s playing breathes more audibly than Brendel’s. He doesn’t have the epic romance of an Ivan Moravec or the patrician authority of a Leon Fleisher. But there’s nothing soft or small-scaled about his Beethoven.
With some 50 strings, Nelsons’s orchestra was larger than the one he fielded for Haydn’s Drumroll Symphony, yet the winds, brass, and percussion held their own. Lewis sighed at the end of that opening phrase, and the orchestra, entering immediately thereafter, responded tenderly. At close to 19 minutes, the Allegro moderato had ample room, and though Lewis was forthright in both tone and approach, he didn’t play this music as if he expected it to phrase itself. One moment he was meditative, the next rhapsodic; his execution of Beethoven’s cadenzas in both the first movement and the third sparkled kaleidoscopically. Nelsons supported him with bright bursts of color, especially in the big yearning theme that closes the orchestral exposition.
The second movement struck one as more civilized than is sometimes the case. At five minutes, it had just enough room; I always wish this movement could be slower, but Beethoven marked it Andante con moto, and that’s how Lewis and Nelsons took it. The orchestra started out insistent but not brusque; Lewis, preferring logic and humanity, gently persuaded it to turn the volume down, whereupon he grew poetic and thoughtful. The Rondo was an uninhibited celebration, the orchestra extroverted, even martial, Lewis teasing and playful. In the eight measures before the closing Presto, in a piano solo Beethoven marks “dolce,” Lewis might have been telling a bedtime story.
After Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony premiered in Moscow in 1957, Nikita Khrushchev’s post-Stalin Soviet government determined that the composer, who had been denounced for formalism in 1948, should receive the Lenin Prize in 1958. But the context suggests alternative narratives. Shostakovich had begun the symphony in 1955, perhaps hoping to have it ready for for the 50th anniversary of the 1905 Revolution. He didn’t finish it till 1957, however, by which time Soviet troops had crushed the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. What’s more, the revolutionary songs he drew on didn’t so much praise communism as denounce tyranny. (After hearing the symphony, Anna Akhmatova described them as songs that “fly across a terrible black sky like angels, like birds, like white clouds.”) Whatever Shostakovich had in mind when he began work on the Eleventh, by the time it premiered, the Soviets managed not to notice that it had become a denunciation of tyranny — including Soviet tyranny. Then there’s the assertion by his son-in-law, Evgeny Chukovsky, that the symphony’s original title sheet read “1906,” the year of Shostakovich’s birth — which would imply the real tyrant being decried here is the one he and his generation suffered under: Stalin.
Certainly no little tyranny existed in 20th-century Russia. The Eleventh runs just over an hour in four continuous movements: “Palace Square,” “The Ninth of January,” “Eternal Memory,” and “Tocsin.” The first two of these refer to the “Bloody Sunday” that jumpstarted the 1905 Revolution. Already by January 8th of that year, St. Petersburg was without electricity and newspaper distribution. On Sunday January 9th, workers processed to the square of the Winter Palace to present Tsar Nicholas II with a petition. The troops guarding the palace fired on the demonstrators.
The year 1905 would go on to see peasant uprisings and naval mutinies, the latter to include the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin that Sergei Eisenstein made famous in his 1925 film. It ended, more or less, with the October Manifesto, in which the Tsar reluctantly agreed to the establishment of a central legislative body, the Duma. But Shostakovich in his symphony is looking at just one day, January 9, at the protests in and around Palace Square, where some 200 demonstrators were killed and as many as 1000 wounded. His first movement is dominated by the melody of “Listen,” whose lyrics tell us, “Like an act of betrayal, like a tyrant’s conscience, the night is black.” “Eternal Memory” draws on the song “You fell as victims in a fateful battle”; in the finale we hear “Rage, you tyrants! Mock us! Although our bodies are trampled, we are stronger in spirit. Shame, shame on you tyrants!” The commitment here is not to Marx or Lenin but to freedom.
The Eleventh opens with a whiff of church bells — the influence of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina is obvious. We’re in a frozen landscape, with shivering strings, a trumpet fanfare (hinting at Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony), and a snare-drum roll. After six minutes, the flutes assert “Listen” (whose first phrase bears a passing resemblance to the bassoon-and-French-horn exchange in the Andante elegiaco of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony) over softly pounding timpani, and that theme gets passed around the orchestra. A few minutes later, the cellos and basses enter with a second song, “The Prisoner.” Neither plea is answered; the tsar was actually not in the city on January 9, 1905. The people wait as the brooding, ominous “Palace Square” music returns and persists.
The second movement is based on two themes from Shostakovich’s “The Ninth of January,” the sixth of his 1951 Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. At the outset we hear “O Tsar, our little father.” The brass section then introduces a chorale version of the theme Shostakovich had written to the words “Bare your heads! On this doleful day the trembling shadow of a long night fell over the Earth.” Repeated here and throughout the rest of the symphony, these themes become a mantra. In this movement, they’re riddled with bullets, a ferocious machine-gun attack from the orchestra. “Eternal Memory” opens with plucking from the cellos and basses, over which the violas play the mournful “You fell as victims.” This is the symphony’s elegy, and it rises to a scream of pain and anguish. “Tocsin” is the symphony’s warning bell. Here “Rage, you tyrants” and a Polish number, “Varshavianka,” join “O Tsar” and “Bare your heads” in the litany of accusation. The conclusion is ambivalent: even as the people fight back, the bells ring out. For whom do they toll?
In Shostakovich’s time, the most celebrated conductor of his works was St. Petersburg native Evgeny Mravinsky, who gave the world premieres of Nos. 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 12 and the St. Petersburg premiere of No. 11. Mravinsky’s approach to Shostakovich could be summed up in Pushkin’s encomium to St. Petersburg in The Bronze Horseman: “I love your strict, harmonious vista.” Nelsons in his back-to-back Grammy-winning recordings of Symphonies 5, 8, 9, and 10 isn’t quite as severe. He’s more like the Winter Palace seen through falling snow.
That’s close to a perfect picture of the Eleventh. Thursday’s interpretation came more than close. Running a fairly standard 62 minutes, it never hurried and never dragged. It was full of air, frosty but with a hint of thaw. Nelsons’s demonstrators felt gentle, righteous folk; their attackers seemed mindless rather than vicious, and that too was just right. Nothing was muted, nothing was whipped into hysteria. Nothing clotted; even at its loudest, the orchestra remained rich and crystalline. Percussion — timpani, snare drum, bass drum — was not stinted. At times, it seemed the conductor was doing nothing, or rather everything by letting Shostakovich speak for himself. Nelsons did bring out the waltzy feel of “O Tsar” in the second movement, and at the end of the third, the violas that reprised “You fell as victims” projected such grave simplicity, they might have been channeling Shakespeare. Among the individual highlights were Thomas Rolfs’s trumpet and, in “Tocsin,” Robert Sheena’s English horn solo on “Bare your heads.”
Deutsche Grammophon’s original contract with Nelsons and the BSO called for a project titled “Under Stalin’s Shadow” — recordings of the Shostakovich symphonies that premiered when Stalin was in power, Nos. 5–10. After the first release in the series, No. 10, won a Grammy in February 2016, Deutsche Grammophon contracted to let Nelsons record all 15 Shostakovich symphonies. That looked a good decision when the second release, comprising Symphonies Nos. 5, 8, and 9, won a second Grammy this past February. It looks even better in the wake of this Eleventh. My favorite memory of Shostakovich in Symphony Hall is the performance of the Eighth that Paavo Berglund gave with the BSO in 2004. Nelsons’s Eleventh combined the best of Mravinsky and Berglund. Shostakovich doesn’t get any better than that.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.