in: Reviews

July 9, 2018

Nelsons Powers Shostakovich

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Shostakovich in his 30s

The first Sunday of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2018 Tanglewood season offered two large-scale works in D minor: Brahms’s massive First Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s massively controversial Fifth Symphony. Both composers were youthful when they produced their works—Brahms just 25, and Shostakovich 31. Brahms’s concerto got a cool reception at its premiere; Shostakovich’s symphony became the toast of Stalin’s Russia. (If it hadn’t, the composer likely would have become toast.) The concerto, with BSO music director Andris Nelsons conducting and Rudolf Buchbinder as soloist, was a little problematic, but the symphony confirmed Nelsons’s reputation as a major Shostakovich interpreter.

Brahms’s concerto premiered in 1859, and though he himself and Clara Schumann had played the solo part, the piece didn’t become popular till Hans von Bülow took it up in the 1880s. It’s hard to see why: this is top-drawer Brahms, and strikingly mature from a 25-year-old. The opening Maestoso isn’t just majestic, it’s Promethean, as if the Titan who gave humankind fire were dodging Zeus’s thunderbolts. As always in Brahms, it’s the composer against Fate, and Fate invariably wins out. Here humankind has the consolation of the noble second theme, and that, in the extended exposition, leads to a muted reflection from the French horns, which seem to say that, in a better world, “noble” would win the day. The Adagio is another of Brahms’s funeral waltzes, its fraught chords suggesting Brahms’s love for Clara, who, 14 years his senior and devoted to her deceased Robert, was more inclined to love him like a son. The Allegro non troppo rondo finale is a rollicking tease that hints at sonata form, but it doesn’t resolve the questions raised by the first two movements.

My benchmark for this concerto is Ivan Moravec’s lush, weighted 1989 Supraphon recording with Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic. But I was looking forward to Buchbinder, having been impressed by the Austrian pianist’s Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 with Nelsons and the BSO last November. I thought his crisp, sunny approach might cut through the Brahmsian gloom. Nelsons provided the kind of open-ended accompaniment that should have accommodated him, and yet somehow it didn’t. Buchbinder was never small-scaled — he thundered right back at the orchestra. But neither Fate nor Clara entered into his reading. It would seem that, in this concerto, the piano has to be bigger than the orchestra. In this instance, it wasn’t.

For the encore that the audience demanded, Buchbinder played Soirée de Vienne, Alfred Grünwald’s paraphrase of music from Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. It’s a lavish, splashy piece, and Buchbinder took to it, reveling in the operetta’s humor and exhibiting a degree of personality that was missing from the Brahms.

The Fifth Symphony is the work by which Shostakovich is best known. Or to clarify: the symphony’s Allegro non troppo finale is what people think of when they think of Shostakovich. Particularly if they know it from Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 recording with the New York Philharmonic (made in Symphony Hall), which is very troppo indeed. At any tempo, what the composer meant by this tub-thumping finale, and indeed the entire symphony, has been the subject of much debate.

The Leningrad Philharmonic  premiered the Fifth under the baton of Evgeny Mravinsky in November 1937. Two years earlier, Shostakovich had been Soviet Russia’s golden boy, with an opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, that was an international success. Then in January 1936, Stalin attended a performance. There followed, in Pravda, an article titled “Muddle Instead of Music” that described Lady Macbeth as “crude, primitive, and vulgar.” Overnight, Shostakovich became anathema. Later that year, he canceled the premiere of his Fourth Symphony — which, had it been presented, would only have worsened his predicament. In 1937, he composed the Fifth; shortly before its premiere, a Moscow newspaper quoted him as calling the symphony “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism.”    

Whether Shostakovich really believed the criticism of Lady Macbeth was “justified” is doubtful. No question, however, that his Fifth Symphony is “creative,” right down to the number he gave it; audiences would certainly have wondered what had happened to the Fourth. We don’t know what the Soviet authorities really thought of the piece; they may have suspected they were its villains rather than its victors. But given the ovation the Fifth received at its premiere — reportedly 45 minutes, almost as long as the work itself — there wasn’t much they could do but accept it as Shostakovich’s return to the fold of Soviet aesthetics.

It’s not, of course. Even if one were to take the finale at face value (and hardly anyone does), there are the first three movements to consider. Shostakovich’s language is somewhat more accessible here than it was in the Fourth, but the sensibility is that of a Marina Tsvetaeva or Anna Akhmatova. The opening Moderato, continually looking over its shoulder, is practically monothematic, as if a more extravagant approach would be considered decadent. Claustrophobia abounds in the repeated three-note figures and insistent one-note stabbing; a high, lonely violin theme looks to escape into the stratosphere, and in the middle of the second subject, there’s a brief burst of sunlight. But the composer is not allowed to meditate (or grieve) in private: the development coopts the exposition’s modest elements into galloping trumpets and a goosestepping march. The pastoral duet for flute and horn that turns up in the recapitulation is a voice crying in the wilderness; like the opening movement of the Fourth Symphony, this one ends with a celesta calling into space.

The five-minute Allegretto is a parody waltz/Ländler with a strong debt to the Scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony. That movement was itself a parody, having grown out of Mahler’s barbed Knaben Wunderhorn song “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,” in which St. Anthony, finding his church empty, goes to preach to the fishes, without result. The Largo is almost Brucknerian in its religious intensity and passion (though Shostakovich was hardly a believer), peaking on yet another theme that hammers away on the same note. The celesta concludes this movement as well, tinkling out the coda as if it were the music-box version of a child’s prayer. 

Agony, parody, prayer — not exactly a hymn to Soviet culture. And what about that finale? For starters, what to make of the tempo? Shostakovich marked the movement Allegro non troppo — which bespeaks a degree of ambivalence. Now, nothing could be less ambivalent than the tempo Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic took when they toured the Soviet Union with the Fifth in the summer of 1959 (just before they made their Columbia recording). And Shostakovich heard that interpretation and endorsed it. Does that mean Bernstein found the key to the movement’s meaning? Not necessarily. Some critics believe he read the finale as an “unabashed triumph”; others claim he understood that “this is not a happy ending.”

So maybe tempo is not the key. Bernstein’s 8:55 seems to give contradictory answers. More normal is somewhere between 10 and 11 minutes. For the live Deutsche Grammphon recording he made with the BSO in Symphony Hall in November 2015, Nelsons took 12:05. (He has company in this time zone: Yakov Kreizberg, Mstislav Rostropovich, the composer’s son Maxim.) Sunday at Tanglewood, the time seemed closer to 13 minutes. And the result did make a statement. But to understand what Nelsons might be trying to say in this finale, we need to look at what he does in the first three movements.

Early Soviet proponents of the Fifth, like Mravinsky and Kirill Kondrashin, are severe, sometimes brusque, in readings that run 45 minutes or less. Nelsons’s recording runs a flat 50 minutes, and Sunday’s Tanglewood performance might have been a tad slower still. You can find more expansive interpretations than the ones he’s recorded with the BSO. (Symphonies Nos. 5, 8, 9, 10, and, just out, Nos. 4 and 11. Nos. 6 and 7 were promised for 2017 but have yet to appear.) But he’s not trying to be profound; he’s trying to get his audiences to listen carefully. His Shostakovich is an invitation to appreciate the music and not just listen for its “message.”

Sunday’s Fifth began less emphatically than some, the opening four-note phrase a question rather than a complaint. But as always with Nelsons’s Shostakovich, the notes had a volume, a three-dimensionality, that made them stand out. Themes emerged limpidly — which is helpful in a composer who didn’t always write memorable tunes. Structure was also pellucid; you could hear Shostakovich weaving the movement out of minimal material, as if that were all the Party had left him. The important rising oboe phrase just before the three-minute mark got room to register. The arrival of the development, with its thumping lower-register piano, was well paragraphed and presaged that goosestepping march full of snare drum and timpani. The end of the development, with strings and playing the opening four-note phrase in canon but at different tempos, managed not to clot. And Nelsons managed the pace — the development speeds up and then slows back to the original tempo — so as to make the music’s reduction to one-note crashing seem inevitable. The movement ends with the celesta playing that rising oboe line three times. On Nelsons’s recording, the celesta seems a bit backward; here it was perfectly gauged.

The Allegretto was deliberate, as if to underline the sense of forced cheer, though it’s hard to understand how anyone could believe this movement isn’t a parody. The Largo here sounded less like Bruckner than like the opening movement of Mahler’s Tenth, which was first performed in 1924, though I don’t know that Shostakovich had heard it by 1937. Nelsons caressed the phrases; if he understated the first climax, it was only to underline the subsequent moment when the xylophone blasts out that anguished theme that begins by hammering four times on the same note. The high, hushed violins were gorgeous; the celesta was again just right, and the final two orchestra chords constituted a benediction.

Nelsons began the finale almost at once, the mundane following hard upon the celestial. Shostakovich is reported to have asked “What exultation can there be?” after the first three movements, and that’s certainly the question that Nelsons posed. Yet that striding first sally in the brass and timpani had a naïve majesty. At length it subsided into unobjectionable movie music and then banging on one note. Nelsons’s middle section serenely, almost subversively, recalled material from the first three movements, reminding us where we’d been and what the symphony is about. When the first theme returned, at a very moderate tempo, it could have been interpreted as the Party’s triumph of the banal, the timpani bashing, in fourths (Shostakovich surely had the finale of the Mahler Third in mind), over one note, an A, that in the coda alone is repeated 252 times. But I also heard these closing pages as something other than a hollow victory, as the people’s wresting that one note from the Party, all the music they’re safely permitted to enjoy, and making it the symbol of their resistance.          

Nelsons’s reading came as no surprise, being very similar to the one he gave last season in Symphony Hall. Those who missed that performance or the one at Tanglewood can console themselves with the recording. But what a joy to hear Shostakovich live and sounding not just prescient but beautiful.

Alexandra Smither (file photo)

Sunday also offered one of the first concerts of the Tanglewood Music Center Fellows’ season. Leading up to the climax of Mozart’s Gran Partita were Richard Strauss’s early (1881), and pleasantly Biedermeier, Serenade for Winds, Charles Ives’s late (1934) Largo for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano, and world premieres by two TMC Fellows, Alex Taylor’s Descent and Theo Chandler’s Two Taylor Songs. The Strauss and Ives were well presented, though the Strauss seemed to clot now and then in the composer’s search for a distinctive voice. Descent more than just a novelty for seven double basses, even though the composer’s stated idea of “moving downwards, in search of musical origins” didn’t extend beyond the descent from the top of the instruments’ range to the bottom though motoric sharing of theme and accompaniment. Two Taylor Songs had Taylor as poet rather than composer; the poetry was expendable and the music overwrought, but there was no gainsaying the voice, or the acting, of soprano Alexandra Smither. Both TMCF pieces benefitted from nuanced conducting, Gemma New in the first instance, Yu An Chang, with particularly eloquent hands and arms, in the second.

The Gran Partita, with a contrabassoon rather than a double bass as the 13th instrument, did not offer a strong interpretive profile. One could hardly expect that from an ensemble that was just starting out together and performing without a conductor. But the playing was exquisite, particularly from the first oboe (Jessica Warren) and first clarinet (Kamalia Freyling), both of whom phrased with imagination and authority. You’d have been hard pressed to have guessed that these 13 Fellows hadn’t been drawn from major orchestras.

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.

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