IN: Reviews

BSO Versus Thor


Yefim Bronfman (file photo)

Deafening peals of thunder frightened concertgoers but did not did not shake the inmost calm of BSO conductor Andris Nelsons, or piano soloist Yefim Bronfman during the Friday night concert at the Koussevitsky Music Shed. The mammoth storm sometimes even seemed like a participant during the concert of Beethoven and Shostakovich.

The rains had started just before concert time, and immediately, warning placards went up identifying the Shed’s status as a shelter. Sitting on the lawn was thus prohibited. By 8pm, the rain truly was falling in torrents, creating an incessant low level of white noise. Winds kicked up so violently that horizontal rain pelted this reviewer, despite his sitting dead-center behind the conductor in section 4. Those curious enough to look outside were chastised by a near perpetual onslaught of lightening strikes, some quite close. Still, this being New England,  everyone strapped in and prepared to listen through the din. Thor unleashed the first of many chest-thumping cracks of thunder during BSO percussionist J. William Hudgins’s opening comments. It could not have been planned more perfectly; Hudgins diverted from his prepared notes about the immense percussion battery we would be hearing in Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony to address the angry heavens: “I think our best efforts can’t even compete with that, so thank you.” The audience cheered.

Then the reality set in that they were about to hear perhaps Beethoven’s most delicate and detailed Piano Concerto, the enigmatic Fourth, amid this maelstrom. Bronfman and Nelsons took the stage to encouraging applause, somewhat warmer than standard, as if the audience wanted to impart solidarity and perhaps sympathy for what they were about to undertake—an exceptional reading made more so by the meteorology. The opening strains, so precious and searching, somehow came off, as did most of all the pianissimo excerpts. It is admirable that no adjustments were made (how could they?) to either piece, and in the case of the Beethoven, as it went on one found they were able to hear the piece through, or over, or above the storm. All the details were audible, especially if one closed their eyes and listened deeper. Bronfman’s first movement cadenza was in turns supple, incisive and generous. The central movement, so bizarre and unique, also mostly came across, although part of end was swallowed up. The rondo finale worked, as the first small details came across well, in a multilayered cadenza and a joyous close.

It’s hard to say what made the more compelling draw; for some, the Shostakovich was the outlandish piece you tolerated in order to hear Bronfman play Beethoven. But for this reviewer, the chance to hear symphony made the concert. The legendary symphony is the stuff of myth, its rarity on the stage due both to its dramatic history of censorship and the requirement for massive orchestral forces. Its BSO premiere was 40 years ago and it has been performed only twice since then prior to this season. That a work composed in 1936 only premiered in Russia is 1961 is a story in itself, one whose details can be guessed.

Shostakovich’s 4th is often linked with his 5th; after all, the composer notoriously withdrew the fourth during its rehearsal cycle after a run-in with the composers’ union, and the 5th is largely seen as his “apology piece” better embodying the Soviet ethos of “Socialist Realism. However, the 4th should rather be linked as a linear next step in his development from the three symphonies that predated it rather than contextualized by the (rather flippant) one that followed. His first being a graduation piece from conservatory, and 2nd and 3rd being awkward and experimental designs seeking to weave socialist elements (“people’s choruses”) into the experimental zeitgeist of the 1920’s. The 4th was to be a marriage of pure instrumental expression, experimentalism distilled to epic scale, and all his influences as a young composer. It calls for the largest forces of any of his symphonies, including quadrupled winds, 2 tubas, 2 harps and 7 percussionists, and runs over an hour.

It contains many of the elements later to be emblems of his mature style: incessant rhythm, kaleidoscopic shifting cells of material, the grotesque and theater music, and a humanistic commentary lying just beneath the surface (most of which, especially the last point, being a reason why it was not to be heard for almost 30 years after its composition). Try as it might, the storm could not drown it out; most of the symphony is immensely scored, and the two notable quiet parts did benefit from brief respites of the howl outside. Nelsons led the BSO with economical, clear gestures, interjecting more in the playful parts and letting the pompous simply happen. He shaped the monstrous opening as understandable phrases, rather than just walls of sound, and he guided the constantly shifting chamber groups through metric modulations and surprise turns of the epic first movement. Near the end, a hair-raising presto seemed to contain more notes in 2 minutes than had the previous 20. The central moderato featured violas carrying a graceful melody punctuated by not-too-disturbing minor seconds (which appeared later on), and perhaps the most sinister use of castanets in the literature. Listen below.

The concluding movement, another universe of sound, based its set of transfigurations on a funeral march (a Mahler reference and another reason the Soviet censors might have taken issue with it). Again, as in the end of the first, a structural minor second often appears, showing in musico-cubist-style how, in different contexts, either tone would work to accompany the music (depending perhaps on the listener’s disposition). These “hidden notes” summed up the entire concert well. During the Beethoven, some delicate textures remained miraculously audible while some of the second movement had to be imagined, enveloped as it was by the elements. Shostakovich’s minor-second dichotomy seemed a brilliant illustration of the evening itself: listeners could see the storm as either a distraction from, or contributor to the concert. The final bars of the 4th contain their own hidden note, an expectant high D over a C minor pedal chord, played almost inaudibly by solo celesta. This single penetrated amid randomly rolling thunder, thus saving the meaning of the finale of this epic, due to Nelson’s timing of the cue. With no way to tell if it would be drowned out, it seemed as if the profound musical and natural forces which contended and collaborated all evening had reached an accord.

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston-based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. What a vivid, incisive account of an extraordinary evening – bravos!

    Comment by nimitta — August 18, 2018 at 4:51 pm

  2. Performances at Tanglewood often contain natural elements, but this was on a level I had never heard before. Man-made intrusive noises bother me like crazy, but the natural ones don’t. It was quite a challenge to hear the Beethoven over the storm, but it was all the more rewarding to make the effort. I found the noise of the storm actually almost complementary to the Shostakovich. Conducting in the midst of such violence must have been exhilarating for Nelsons. It was quite an evening, ending with wading across the flooded paths carrying a useless umbrella and getting thoroughly soaked.

    Comment by David Bean — August 19, 2018 at 8:04 pm

  3. Interesting review, but I must make one correction. As someone who loves the Shostakovich Fourth, I relish any opportunity to hear it played in Symphony Hall. In fact, the symphony has been programmed by three conductors since Rozhdestvensky led the piece in 1978: Mark Elder in 2008, Vladimir Jurowski in 2012, and Nelsons in April of this year.

    Comment by George Hungerford — August 20, 2018 at 8:50 am

  4. Correction duly noted. Thanks

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 20, 2018 at 1:24 pm

  5. With close lightning strikes resounding all around and a literal deluge from the heavens as a backdrop, the performance by Nelsons and the BSO of the Shostakovich 4th Symphony,took on a most terrifying life of its own. What-an-incredible-performance ! There were FFF+ passages in the final movement , that were almost ‘shed-roof lifting’, with a quality of controlled and sustained crescendos – that reached heights of sheer volume – that I have rarely ever heard the Boston Symphony attain before at Tanglewood .

    Comment by Ron Barnell — August 20, 2018 at 6:13 pm

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