A symphony program of Mozart and Shostakovich may sound un-enterprising, but the one BSO music director Andris Nelsons put together for this weekend’s bill certainly promised something unusual: Mozart’s K.361 Serenade for 13 Instruments (later known as the Gran Partita) with Shostakovich’s song-cycle Symphony No. 14— both employing modest forces. Mozart wrote his serenade for 12 winds and double bass. Shostakovich called for an orchestra of 19 strings and three percussionists, plus soprano and bass vocal soloists. And that’s where the pieces part company. Mozart’s serenade, one of his most popular works, exudes life; Shostakovich’s symphony, obscure even by Shostakovich symphony standards, is a paean to death.
The symphony, it’s only fair to say, did not get the audience boost of starring in a movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture. In Miloš Forman’s 1984 Amadeus (adapted by Peter Shaffer from his play), Antonio Salieri gushes over the serenade’s Adagio third movement: “This was music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.”
Shaffer’s Salieri must not have heard the Laudate Dominum from the Vesperae solennae de confessore, to name just one Mozart work that preceded the K.361 serenade, or he wouldn’t have been so surprised. We don’t know exactly when Mozart wrote K.361: probably in 1781, possibly as late as 1784. As serenades go, it’s practically symphonic. In the Vienna of 1780, the wind serenade was mostly an opportunity to hear the popular tunes — including opera arias — of the day. Mozart was more ambitious. To the standard harmonie octet of paired oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and French horns, he added a pair of basset horns and two more French horns. Written in seven movements, the work can take 50 minutes — longer than any of his 41 symphonies, or for that matter any of Beethoven’s before the Ninth.
Nelsons was scheduled to be just the third BSO music director to lead the complete work, after Leinsdorf and Ozawa. Thursday, however, a program insert advised us that, “having arrived back in Boston this week with a bad cold,” he would be conducting only the Shostakovich in these concerts. He expressed his gratitude to the players for carrying on without him. It wasn’t the first time BSO players have presented this work without a conductor — they did so twice in 2014.
Nelsons had reason to be grateful: Thursday’s performance was luscious and expansive, running just over 50 minutes. It even sounded like the one he would have led. Mozart’s double bass was replaced by a contrabassoon — which instrument Mozart was writing for has been a matter of discussion, though the pizzicato markings in the score would seem to call for double bass, and it’s not clear that Mozart would have had access to a contrabassoon before 1785. There were three oboists rather than the usual two, Amanda Hardy assisting John Ferrillo and Mark McEwan. William R. Hudgins and Michael Wayne were the clarinets, Thomas Martin and Craig Nordstrom the basset horns, Richard Svoboda and Suzanne Nielsen the bassoons, James Sommerville, Rachel Childers, Michael Winter, and Jason Snider the French horns. Gregg Henegar was the contrabassoonist.
The opening Largo was slow and atmospheric; I had a vision of the young Mozart loose in Schönbrunn Palace, perhaps in company with Marie Antoinette, and about to get into mischief. When the Allegro molto started up, he seemed to open one door after another; he explored some dark corners, and yet a droll playfulness prevailed. The ensemble here and throughout was crisp and robust, and the sound carried to the back row of Symphony Hall’s second balcony. It was hard to believe there were only 14 players on stage.
The two minuets were gracious and genial rather than sprightly; the trios — two for each minuet — went at pretty much the same tempo but were made to feel different, particularly the dirndl-spinning ländler in the second minuet. The leisurely Adagio afforded Ferrillo, Hudgins, and Martin ample room to weave, over a lucid backdrop of French horn and bassoon, the spell of intertwining oboe, clarinet, and basset horn that so enchanted Salieri. The Romanze was wistful and yearning, with an Allegretto middle section that went at a real allegretto; the Tema con variazioni was a kind of children’s march till the Adagio fifth variation, with its haunting solo from Ferrillo, and then the Allegretto sixth and last, which launched into an unexpected oom-pah 3/4. That set up the splendidly squealing Rondo finale, in which Wolfgang and Marie Antoinette have to race back to Empress Maria Theresa in the Hall of Mirrors before they’re missed. If you want to hear it with the sonorities Mozart expected, click on Boston’s own Grand Harmonie performance HERE.
Shostakovich composed Symphony No. 14 in early 1969, in Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital, where he was being treated for polio. Ill as he was, he worked quickly; the symphony premiered later that same year. His influences are obvious: Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death (which he’d orchestrated in 1962) and Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and Das Lied von der Erde. From his hospital reading list, the composer selected two poems by Federico García Lorca, six by Guillaume Apollinaire, one by Wilhelm Küchelbecker, and two by Rainer Maria Rilke. He set the symphony to Russian translations (excepting Küchelbecker’s poem, which was in Russian to begin with), and in some cases he modified the translations to suit his sense of the poem. The result doesn’t always honor the original. Rilke’s “Der Tod des Dichters” (“The Death of the Poet”) begins “He lay”; Shostakovich set to the text “The poet was dead,” and later there’s a line about how long the road is that has no equivalent in the German. This poem and the second one from Rilke, “Schlußstück” (“Closing Piece”), accept death as a part of life; the texts Shostakovich worked from lament death as the end of life.
The second poem from García Lorca, “Malagueña,” makes reference to “a smell of salt, and of female blood, in the fevered tuberoses of the shore.” Typical García Lorca. Shostakovich’s text for these lines reads “The smell of salt and hot blood makes the nerves tingle.” Not at all typical. The last of the Apollinaire poems, “Réponse des cosaques zaporogues au sultan de Constantinople” (“Reply from the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Sultan of Constantinople”), ends “Guard well all your riches to pay for your medicines”; what Shostakovich set reads “Let’s hope you can buy up all the medicines you’ll need to cure your ailments,” a softer conclusion.
There is, of course, no way to translate these poems into Russian — in some cases rhyming Russian — and still preserve the original sensibility. García Lorca and Rilke, in particular, give us the mystery of death; Shostakovich, who did not believe in an afterlife, gives us the horror of death, both in the texts he set and in the music he composed. Professing to dislike the sound of pages being turned by an audience, he suggested that the symphony could be performed in the audience’s own language. It’s not a good idea: his music wraps itself around the words of his Russian text, whereas it has only a nodding acquaintance with the Spanish, French, and German originals. Once you’ve heard the soprano spit out, in slow motion, “khochu ya dlya tovo, kto dolzhen byt’ ubit” (“I want [to become beautiful] for the one who must be killed”), you won’t be satisfied with Apollinaire’s “Car puisqu’il doit mourir je veux me faire belle,” even though the meaning’s the same.
The 11 poems, in any translation, give Death his full due. García Lorca’s “De profundis” speaks of the “hundred lovers” who “sleep forever beneath Andalusia’s dry earth.” In “Malagueña,” Death enters and exits a tavern, over and over; he might as well take a seat. The Apollinaire poems range from “Loreley,” in which the legendary siren throws herself into the Rhine, to the first of his “Attentives,” in which a woman anticipates the death of her soldier brother (and lover), and “À la Santé,” the story of a prisoner with no hope.
Shostakovich opted for a chamber orchestra of strings — 14 violins, four violas, three cellos, two double basses — and a percussion array that includes wood block, castanets, whip, tom-toms, xylophone, vibraphone, tubular bells, and celesta, but no timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, or triangle. What the composer achieves with this limited line-up is remarkable, all highs and lows. It’s as if we already had one foot in the beyond. His vocal soloists also tend to high and low, with no middle ground. The soprano sings #2, #4, #5, and #10, the bass #1, #7, #8, and #9. They dialogue on #3 and #6 and duet in the finale.
The opening “De profundis” begins with ultra-high strings that seem to have wandered in from the beginning of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony by way of the last three movements of Shostakovich’s previous symphony, Babi Yar. When the bass enters, intoning as much as singing, you can hear the influence of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Gravity gives way to hysteria in “Malagueña,” where Death mocks the patrons by breaking into a castanet-accompanied waltz.
The first of the six Apollinaire poems, “Loreley,” is a hectic exchange between stern Bishop and heartsick siren. She wants to die; he tries to send her to a convent, but she breaks away. The song begins with a whip crack; along the way woodblocks replicate the sound of galloping horses and tubular bells stand in for the convent. Toward the end, the mood changes: there’s a hint of the Prelude to Wagner’s Rheingold before the ambiance suggests the cradle-song final stanza of the last of the Kindertotenlieder, “In diesem Wetter.” Vibraphone and celesta accompanying Loreley’s death give way to a cello solo that seems to be mapping the mathematics of Death, if not the universe.
“Le suicidé” (“The Suicide”) occupies an unmarked grave from which three lilies grow, their beauty accursed. “Les attentives I” (“On the Watch”) conjures the marching of Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn song “Revelge,” complete with tom-toms and spooky xylophone. The singer seems unhinged as she dolls herself up to celebrate the imminent death of her brother/lover in the trenches. “Les attentives II” (“Look Here, Madam”) is a comparatively lighthearted number in which the bass tells the soprano that she’s lost something and she replies that it’s nothing, just her heart, which she’s given away and taken back and left in the trenches, and she laughs at love, which death cuts down.
“À la Santé” is a “De profundis”–like plea from a prisoner who’s been stripped naked and thrown into darkness. He paces like a caged bear as plucked strings and woodblock tick off the seconds and Death puts on his dancing shoes once more in an eerie fugue for strings. The prisoner even implores God to tell him what’s he done, but there’s no answer, only that relentless ticking. “Réponse des cosaques zaporogues au sultan de Constantinople” begins, “You are a hundred times more wicked than Barabbas” — no points for guessing that Shostakovich is thinking not of the poem’s sultan but of his own critics. (One of the most vindictive, Pavel Apostolov, suffered a heart attack during the unofficial premiere and died a few weeks later. Shostakovich, to judge by what he said afterward, would have been satisfied with a severe case of indigestion.)
“O Delvig, Delvig” marks a 180-degree turn, as the cellos weave harmonies under Küchelbecker’s tribute to his poet and journalist friend Anton Delvig. “What is the reward for lofty deeds and poetry?” he asks, and concludes, “Our bond will not perish . . . the bond of those who love the eternal Muses.” But both Rilke poems are implacable, the one with the poet’s mask like a tender fruit dying in the air, the other with Death crying inside us.
The BSO had presented this work in Symphony Hall just once before, under Dennis Russell Davies in 1990. For these concerts, which are being recorded for release as part of his contract to do all 15 Shostakovich symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon, Nelsons had planned to have Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais (his wife) and Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, but Terfel, citing vocal fatigue, had to withdraw and was replaced by Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk. Nelson has twice as many strings as Shostakovich called for: 20 violins, eight violas, six cellos, four basses. Transliterated Russian texts and English translations are provided in the program; during Thursday’s performance, the house lights remained down, but English supertitles were provided. They synched reasonably well with the singing, but as translations they were rather different from what’s in the program.
Tsymbalyuk has sung Boris Godunov at the Bayerische Staatsoper, and the power that role requires was evident here. What was not so evident was the deep bass one might have expected. Opolais, for her part, did not often rise above the instrumentalists, and neither singer really took charge of the text —it was rare that you could tell what language they were singing in. Nelsons’s augmented orchestra didn’t help, and my position at the back of the second balcony certainly tested the singers. Both looked at their scores a good deal; neither made a huge impact.
The bass brought a degree of anguish to “shtob ikh ne zabyli lyudi” (“so that people will not forget them”) in “De profundis,” but I was hoping for a higher degree. For all that the voice was beautiful, “À la Santé” didn’t plumb the depths of despair, and neither did “O Delvig, Delvig” plumb the depths of friendship. In “Malagueña,” Opolais’s high wailing did convey the panic of tavern patrons wondering where death would strike next. She was heartfelt but monochromatic in “Loreley,” “Le suicidé,” and “Les attentives I”; it wasn’t till “Les attentives II” that she loosened up, laughing maniacally through the lady’s repeated “khokhochu.” There was total commitment, but much of it seemed one-dimensional.
Nelsons began by eliciting an extraordinary degree of finesse from the high violins in “De profundis,” and he repeated that feat at the beginning of “Der Tod des Dichters.” His BSO way with Shostakovich has been attractively understated, stressing the music rather than the politics. Here it was almost too understated, though that impression might change given more forward (or more forwardly placed) singers. There was no faulting the orchestra, particularly Sato Knudsen’s solo cello in “Loreley” and “Le suicidé.” Some Shostakovich conductors make you not want to hear the work again; Nelsons, even when you’re left with questions, always invites a second listening. I look forward to the recording.
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.