in: Reviews

October 2, 2017

BSO’s Compelling Study in Contrasts

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Andris Nelsons leads the BSO and Paul Lewis (Michael Blanchard photo)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons extended its survey of the symphonies of Shostakovich with its first performances of No. 11, Op. 103 after having given Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 with piano soloist Paul Lewis. The pairing made for a stark and thrilling study in contrasts. Jeffrey Gantz has already written a thorough, thoughtful review of the Thursday night concert here. My thoughts on the subsequent Saturday evening follow.

Of Beethoven’s five published piano concertos, the fourth is the most intimate, and the most personal in its largely sunny, optimistic air. Lewis, Nelsons, and the BSO gave the concerto’s unusual, soloist-before-orchestra opening a gorgeous, hushed rendition, which opened to a bracing forte with crystalline clarity. In the impressive development of the first movement, where separate ideas were articulated and exchanged between upper strings, lower strings, winds, and piano, every part could be heard equally, rendering Beethoven’s complex writing with beautiful clarity. Lewis dazzled in the solo part’s many scales and runs. But he outdid himself in Beethoven’s cadenzas, where he varied dynamics and tempo, giving them a freewheeling freedom, and making them sound like they were improvised on the spot. Nelsons deftly brought the orchestra into play at the cadenza’s end, finishing the movement with a finesse that drew light applause from the audience.

The slow movement ran at a fairly conventional tempo, but Nelsons cut each orchestra chord short, giving it the sound of an arresting, abrupt march. Lewis’s restrained, dreamy rendition of the solo lined up rhythmically and harmonically against the orchestra perfectly, but the short chords of the orchestra and the sustained chords of the piano suggested two different parts playing past each other. Lewis persisted with that small, still, quiet voice, compelling the blustery orchestra to quiet down to match him. It was wonderfully dramatic stuff, offering a contrast to how Shostakovich was bullied and steamrollered by Stalin’s brutal juggernaut.

Nelsons brought the orchestra down to hushed, almost inaudible levels, barely stopped the sound, then began the jaunty theme of the third movement Rondo with quiet excitement. Lewis duetted beautifully with cellist Sato Knudsen, and gave the impetus for a more robust, emphatic forte orchestral tutti. In this exuberant movement, the viola section made the most of its ensemble moment with an accompanying figure, then helping lead the transition back to a lusty recapitulation. Orchestra and pianist handed off to each other seamlessly through cadenza and energetic conclusion, bringing the near-capacity crowd rapidly to its feet.

Lewis returned after several waves of applause with an encore, Schubert’s Allegretto in C Minor, D. 915. He has distinguished himself several times in Boston playing the composer’s work, and had just the measure of Schubert’s play at the edges between minor and major, making for a lovely pendant to a superb performance.

Jeffrey Gantz gives a detailed account in his review of how Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his 11th Symphony to evoke the events of January 9, 1905, when Tsar Nicholas II’s troops shot down hundreds of workers in front of the Tsar’s Winter Palace, setting the stage for the Bolshevik revolution a dozen years later. The four movement work weaves together nine revolutionary songs into an accessible, freely associative fabric that feels like a movie score. Indeed, that 1957 score developed an array of sounds and textures that have inspired many subsequent TV and film composers.

Nelsons drew another vivid, evocative interpretation from the orchestra. The opening Adagio, “The Palace Square”, opened with a spare, hushed, bleak sound, full of octaves and open fifths in the strings, and with ringingly present double bass lines making the whole thing pregnant with a foreboding doom. A lone muted trumpet sounds, quiet and utterly exposed. BSO principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs rendered the part fearlessly and flawlessly. Successive waves of brass and percussion added to the sense of impending menace, so that even when the bassoons reprise the trumpet solo material, it sounds comical, yet even more foreboding. Then came the high point of the first movement, when principal trumpets Rolfs and Thomas Siders played a canonic duet, teasing back and forth between major and minor, consonance and dissonance in an exquisitely tuned high-wire act.

The Adagio proceeds without pause to the second movement Allegro, “The 9th of January”, which depicts the “Bloody Sunday” massacre. Tension builds in steadily growing waves. If I have any criticism of the BSO’s energetic performance, it’s that in this movement, the orchestra moved too quickly from piano to fortissimo, ratcheting up the tension to ear-shattering climax after climax instead of letting a slow burn lend narrative shape to the movement. Still, the transformations to a dark melancholy string waltz, the ferocious string fugue, and the savage brass and percussion made for a harrowing portrait of tyrannical brutality. It then gave way to a reprise of the opening material, made all the bleaker for what had gone before.

This transitions directly to the third movement Adagio, “In Memoriam”, which begins with a halting, almost arrhythmic double bass figure. This serves as the harmonic underpinning for a moving lament, emerging from the violas and cellos, joined by the violins, then low brass and low winds. This gathered enough power and presence that even another wave of pounding drums and percussion could not drown it out, a testament to the extraordinary discipline and generous sound of the Boston Symphony. The work closes by reducing back to that enigmatic bass line.

The final movement Allegro, “The Tocsin”, erupted from the bass line, at a slower than usual tempo but gathering momentum and speed. In this movement, the orchestra was just as vital and gripping at mezzopiano as at fortissimo. And another standout moment happened when the trumpet theme from the first movement transforms to a high plaintive dirge on the English horn, played with heartbreaking desolation by Robert Sheena. The movement ends in another climactic explosion, with all of the BSO percussion section whaling away, and Timothy Genis particularly emphatic on the timpani, and Kyle Brightwell fiercely pounding on the bass drum. The spectacular finish brought the audience to its feet to acknowledge the virtuosity and the magnificent study in contrasts.

You can hear the Saturday evening concert in the WCRB stream here. BSO will repeat this program on Tuesday at 8 p.m., and will take the Shostakovich on tour in Japan in November. Their Shostakovich survey will continue with the 14th Symphony in February 2018, and the 4th in mid March.

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.

5 Comments

  1. “but Nelsons cut each orchestra chord short”. Why “but”? The score (in theold Kalmus edition) says “sempre stac”.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — October 2, 2017 at 8:00 pm

  2. Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto and a Shostakovich symphony? Quite simply, my ideal concert.

    Comment by Christopher Wright — October 4, 2017 at 3:13 pm

  3. To Martin: Well, it’s interesting, when you look at the score. The piano part has markings like “molto cantabile” and “molto espressivo.” The orchestra is marked “sempre staccato” (I’m looking at the Breitkopf edition at http://ks.imslp.net/files/imglnks/usimg/e/ed/IMSLP01288-Piano_Concerto_No._4_in_G_Major,_Op._58-II._Andante_con_moto.pdf) But not all the notes are marked sempre staccato; it only is marked partway into the phrase, but to my mind, the BSO cut things sharper and shorter than I’ve heard in past performances and recordings. It played up that contrast between soloist and orchestra, more than any other recording or performance that I’ve heard before.

    To Christopher: They are two great works to be sure. At least one friend of mine who attended the concert was unsettled by the stark contrast between the two works. I love both of them enough that it didn’t bother me.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — October 6, 2017 at 10:58 pm

  4. James:

    In the Henle edition, rather than reiterating the “sempre stacc.” at bar 16, as in the Breitkopf edition, they continue to put a dot on each note, with a few exceptions. The first phrase ending, in bar 5, has no dot (Breitkopf does). The high G in 17 has no dot, the A in 28 and the B in 31 have no dots, nor do they in the next sequence either. My instinct is that Beethoven may have wanted these longer phrases to dovetail into the piano part, but as these two editions show, it’s clearly up for interpretation.

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — October 7, 2017 at 8:49 pm

  5. The on-demand BSO broadcast recordings are suspended now, pending a new national broadcast agreement with the musicians’ union. Hopefully that will be settled this month, enabling them to resume, but for now the only way to hear this concert again is to listen to the rebroadcast on Monday, October 9, at 8pm on WCRB. The regular on-demand link, provided in this review, does not contain any post-Tanglewood concert recordings.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — October 8, 2017 at 1:26 pm

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