Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra brought together Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial the BSO is celebrating this season, and Dmitri Shostakovich, whose complete symphonies Nelsons and the orchestra are in the process of recording. Thursday at the Hall, we heard a heavyweight bill: Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (The Age of Anxiety), which questions the meaning of existence in post–World War II America, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4, which questions the possibility of existence in 1930s Soviet Russia. Nelsons and the orchestra, along with the piano soloist in the Bernstein, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, had the answers, at least as far as musical performance went.
The Age of Anxiety isn’t massive in length — it runs around 35 minutes — but it takes its title from W.H. Auden’s very massive (over 100 pages) 1947 Pulitzer-winning poem of the same name, which explores issues of identity, meaning, and faith. Auden’s poem inspired not only Bernstein’s symphony, which he completed in 1949 and revised in 1965, but Jerome Robbins’s 1950 ballet Age of Anxiety, set to Bernstein’s score, for New York City Ballet. (Robbins’s choreography is now lost, but Bernstein’s score has since been taken up in ballets by John Neumeier and Liam Scarlett.)
The symphony is hardly standard repertoire: the BSO gave the 1949 world premiere, with the composer at the piano, under the commissioner, Serge Koussevitzky, but has played it just twice since in Symphony Hall, under Seiji Ozawa in 1968 and 1992. Still, I suspect more people have heard it than have read the poem. Auden divided his Age of Anxiety into six parts: “Prologue”; “The Seven Ages” (referring to Jaques’s “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s As You Like It); “The Seven Stages”; “The Dirge”; “The Masque”; “Epilogue.” The poem is set in New York City; the four characters — shipping clerk Quant, RCAF medical intelligence officer Malin, department-store buyer Rosetta, and American naval officer Emble — meet in a Third Avenue bar during World War II, on what Auden tells us is All Souls’ Night (not that the characters show any awareness of it). Over the course of the poem, which Auden wrote in a loose imitation of Old English alliterative verse, they discuss “The Seven Ages,” then embark on an alcohol-fueled “Seven Stages” dream journey, traveling by car and on foot, by train and trolley, boat and bicycle, through city and country, forest and desert, winding up back in the bar as disillusioned as ever. They take a cab to Rosetta’s apartment for snacks and a nightcap; on the way they lament “Our lost dad, / Our colossal father.” Rosetta and Emble, who have become infatuated with each other, plight their troth in “The Masque,” with Quant and Malin as witnesses, but after those two leave, Rosetta finds Emble passed out on her bed and concludes they’re ships that have passed in the night. In the street, Quant and Malin exchange addresses and promptly forget each other.
Upon finishing the symphony, Bernstein expressed surprise at how literally he felt he had conveyed the poem. He certainly caught the its anxiety, the sense that we are, in Malin’s words, “neither God nor good.” And though choosing a piano as the protagonist in a poem about four characters might strike one as odd, Quant, Malin, Rosetta, and Emble are really just aspects of Auden himself (they all talk like him), so that kind of works. Yet no music can replicate the density and particularity of Auden’s poem, things like Malin’s attraction to Emble, or the Biblical allusions, or Quant’s invocation of Rosetta’s lampshade and peppermill as if they were the Lares and Penates of her apartment. Perhaps it also wasn’t possible to address Rosetta’s monologue to the sleeping Emble, in which we discover that she’s Jewish, or Malin’s concluding thoughts, in which Auden expresses his own sense of Christianity.
Bernstein said that his “Prologue” has as its frontispiece Edward Hopper’s 1942 Nighthawks, and the two clarinets that begin his Age of Anxiety certainly suggest the painting, interweaving for a couple of minutes before a flute, in a slow descending scale, ushers us into “The Seven Ages,” which comprises seven variations that end in a wind threnody before the piano finishes off the movement with another slow descending scale. Allusions to the plainsong “Dies irae” bookend Bernstein’s “Seven Stages;” in between, piano and orchestra expend a lot of energy getting nowhere. “The Dirge” emerges out of a twelve-tone row, Bernstein seeming to equate the absence of the father with serialism.
Auden in “The Masque” clearly has in mind the formal wedding ceremony at the end of As You Like It and other Shakespeare plays. Bernstein’s “Masque” is a jazzy, uninhibited party where the piano has the spotlight and you can hear faint echoes of “Fascinating Rhythm.” In his “Epilogue,” Bernstein reflects, objects, anguishes, gives in to resignation, then concludes in a kind of troubled triumph. In the 1949 original, the piano in this last movement had only a single chord near the end, as if it were an observer. The 1965 revision makes it a participant, even giving it a cadenza.
On Thursday, Nelsons’s atmospheric clarinets and flute did indeed conjure Nighthawks, and Thibaudet entered, at once meditative and mercurial, though not as lavishly poetic as Krystian Zimerman in this work, but engaging in his spontaneity, his flashes of impulse. In Variation III, Nelsons and the orchestra were world-weary; in Variation IV, Thibaudet’s Wall Street bustle caught the sense of Auden’s “The mutable circus where mobs rule / The arena with roars,” and his very slow descent (echoing the flutes at the beginning) faded into Jaques’s “mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
“The Seven Stages,” after a stentorian start from the orchestra, found Thibaudet comping up a storm of ostinatos, and the orchestra was stormy in response to the lack of forward movement. At the beginning of Variation XII, with Thibaudet still scurrying to no effect, the low brass intoned the “Dies irae” once more, insisting there had never been any hope for the journey. “The Dirge” was as much accusation as lament, Nelsons not holding back, and Thibaudet was heroically sorrowful in the middle section, as if he were playing Brahms’s newly discovered Piano Concerto No. 3. In “The Masque,” on the other hand, Thibaudet seemed to be channeling his favorite jazz pianists — all at once. He had the measure of Bernstein’s ferociously difficult writing, he was comfortable in the American idiom, yet there was a Gallic elegance about his interpretation, a touch of Debussy.
The beginning of the “Epilogue,” which follows “The Masque” without transition, sounded tender, almost remorseful, as if Bernstein were now turning to Rosetta’s monologue (which in the poem ends “The Masque,” but no matter), to her Holocaust references, “When . . . our bodies are chucked / Like cracked crocks onto kitchen middens.” In his cadenza, Thibaudet caught the mood with extraordinary delicacy. And the orchestra, moving toward the climax, began to glow; in Nelsons’s grand concept, it seemed that Bernstein actually did address Malin’s Four Quartets–flavored closing monologue (“In our anguish we struggle / To elude Him, to Lie to Him, yet His love observes / His appalling promise”).
At the time of composing The Age of Anxiety, Bernstein said he thought it was important for listeners to have read the poem. As the years went by, he came to believe otherwise, saying, “The symphony has acquired a life of its own.” I do wonder what a listener with no program would make of it — or even a listener with just the movement titles. “The Seven Stages” of what? “The Dirge” for what? It’s been suggested that Bernstein’s symphony is superior to Auden’s poem, but I believe the poem, with all its idiosyncrasies, enriches the music. I don’t know whether Nelsons and Thibaudet have read Auden’s Age of Anxiety, but they engaged with the symphony as if they had.
Shostakovich’s Fourth needs no thematic map. It would be unfair to say that his symphony makes Bernstein’s seem lightweight, but there’s a political sophistication here and a grounding in grim reality that transcends anything Auden or Bernstein had to navigate in post-war America. Shostakovich started working on the piece in 1935, in the wake of his initially successful opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, but when Josef Stalin heard it in January 1936, the fat was in the fire. A Pravda review headlined “Muddle Instead of Music” ensued, the opera was removed from the Soviet repertoire, and though Shostakovich finished the symphony and had scheduled the premiere for December 1936 with the Leningrad Philharmonic before he was compelled to withdraw it. The Fourth lay dormant until 1961, when Kirill Kondrashin led the premiere with the Moscow State Philharmonic.
It’s just as well Stalin didn’t hear this symphony — Shostakovich might well have gone to prison. It calls for a huge orchestra with as many as 80 strings, not to mention two piccolos and two timpanists. The Fourth is structured in three movements, the outer two, running close to 30 minutes each, enclosing a 10-minute intermezzo. There’s no lyric slow movement; there are themes but hardly what you’d call tunes, and nothing really develops — all three movements are in something like an ABABA form. And instead of the triumphant peroration that Stalin would have expected, perhaps a choral finale like those in Shostakovich’s Second (To October) and Third (First of May) Symphonies, we get a lonely celesta lost in space. Hardly the stuff of the workers’ state.
The Allegretto poco moderato first movement oscillates between march and waltz. That in itself needn’t have seemed anti-Soviet, but the march, which starts with winds and xylophone, is a shrieking parody, and the waltz limps, as if one of the marchers had shot it. The second appearance of the march becomes a parody of a parody, until, as if the authorities had taken note, the violins have to hoof it away in a dizzyingly fast fugue, with wood block, timpani, snare drum, and bass drum in hot pursuit. The waltz returns, but a series of crescendos initiated by the timpani sound a tocsin, and eventually the bass drum takes us back to the march, now played by solo bassoon and honking English horn, reminding us that Emperor Stalin has no clothes.
The Moderato con moto starts with a modest four-note theme, the symphony now hoping to have a civilized afternoon tea with friends without attracting too much attention. That doesn’t happen: the timpani break in and the movement quickly veers out of control. Another fugue ultimately starts up, this one labyrinthine and aimless. It’s ushered out by more wood block and snare drum.
The Largo — Allegro begins with the solo bassoon’s unmistakable nod to the parody funeral march from Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony. A nervous toccata arises and goes nowhere; the cellos strike up a waltz (with overtones of “After the Ball”), and piccolo and flute pitch in with an allusion to the Papageno-Papagena duet from Mozart’s Zauberflöte. We get intimations of polka and galop, a party or at least a conversation, but there’s always the prospect of that knock at the door — or the bassoon breaking back in. What does break in instead is a solo trombone, imposing itself on march, waltz, and toccata; you can’t tell whether it’s a friendly visitor, perhaps bringing caviar, or a Party spy. What you can identify for sure is that rumbling ostinato in the basses that comes direct from the Scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony. And the big brass chorale that you’ve been expecting and dreading for the past hour sounds for a moment like a distorted version of the Rondo-Finale of Mahler’s Fifth. The distortion is extreme; the only alternative Shostakovich offers is that celesta coda punctuated by lonesome trumpet and soft bass drum.
Nelsons is the first BSO music director to program this symphony; guests led the three previous BSO performances. He didn’t get quite as many strings on stage as Shostakovich wanted. The composer called for 12-16 cellos and 10-14 basses; I counted 10 cellos and nine basses. And though with at 28:00, 10:00, and 29:00, Thursday’s timings proved average by contemporary standards; it didn’t zip along like Kondrashin’s 1962 Moscow State Philharmonic recording, or the one Eugene Ormandy made with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1963, after leading the symphony’s American premiere. Both of those clocked in at about an hour.
Nelsons’s reading did, however, roar like Kondrashin’s. Or rather, it roared when it needed to roar, barbaric and demonic, nasty but never clotted and never ugly. Where relaxation was needed, Nelsons breathed; the first waltz in the Largo was luscious. Overall, he reached Kondrashin’s harrowing ferocity while accommodating the symphony’s mercurial moods and giving the soloists room to shine. If Richard Svoboda’s bassoon stood out, that’s largely because Shostakovich gave him the most to do. But from flute (Elizabeth Rowe) and piccolo (Cynthia Meyers, Ann Bobo) to oboe (John Ferrillo), English horn (Robert Sheena), clarinet (William Hudgins), E-flat clarinet (Thomas Martin), bass clarinet (Craig Nordstrom), French horn (James Sommerville), trumpet (Thomas Rolfs), trombone (Toby Oft), and tuba (Mike Roylance, Peter Link), we heard a shattering testament to the musical place that existed before Soviet authorities hemmed Shostakovich in for the remainder of his life—one to which he would never return. Overall, we witnessed an excellent foretaste of the Deutsche Grammophon recording that Nelsons and the BSO will eventually release.
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.