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Nelsons Again Shows Shostakovich Mastery


A young Shostakovich

This weekend’s program from the BSO focuses on the music of northern Europe. The orchestra is in the process of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Latvia — the home of its music director, Andris Nelsons — with two new works. Last month it was Maija Einfelde’s Lux aeterna. The current program begins with Andris Dzenītis’s Māra and continues with Shostakovich’s First Symphony, part of Nelsons’s ongoing project to perform (and record, for Deutsche Grammophon) all 15 of Shostakovich’s symphonies with the BSO. After intermission, we get a BSO rarity, the second act of Nutcracker. On paper, not the most prepossessing line-up: a world premiere (who knows?), a first symphony (how good can it be?), and half of a syrupy ballet for kids that we’ve all heard a million times. But Thursday the world premiere was welcome, and the first symphony was very good indeed. And the ballet music, if not very balletic, was not in the least syrupy.

Dzenītis was born in Riga in 1978; Māra was commissioned jointly by the BSO and its partner the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where Nelsons is also music director. Dedicated to Nelsons, it premiered in Leipzig last month. Thursday’s performance constituted the American premiere.

Dzenītis describes the Latvian goddess Māra as one of God’s “two manifestations in the worldly realm.” She’s “the patroness of the entire physical, visible, audible, tangible world, and at the same time its embodiment. We encounter her in every step we take, whenever we see, hear, smell, touch, or feel. She is in charge of birth and death, of the matter and substance of the world, space, both the tangible and the evanescent. Air and water. Dewy meadows and mold. A mystery. The energy that comes into being and leads to its own destruction. The beginning and the end.”

That’s a lot to convey in 20 minutes — Stravinsky needed 30 just to jump-start Russia’s spring. Dzenītis’s orchestra calls for bass clarinet and bass trombone among other instruments, and percussion to include tam-tam, crotales, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, temple blocks, tom-toms, and whip.

It starts with an eruption that reminded me of the “Fontana del Tritone” section of Respighi’s Fontane di Roma. Fragments of melody suggest cosmic fragments, or, as in Sacre, the cracking open of the earth. Ghostly trumpets lead to wind and string ostinatos; halfway through the texture thickens, and so do the rhythms. A hint of the plainsong “Dies irae” precedes a ramping up of intensity and a climax with brass fanfares and then a timpani crescendo. Yet Māra’s final incarnation is her most unexpected: a two-minute bass-clarinet solo (here played by the BSO’s impeccable Craig Nordstrom) that meditates on, and perhaps mediates, the chaos that has gone before.

In his program note, Dzenītis speaks of tracing “different meanders and line segments characteristic of Māra . . . sometimes practically visible in the score, just like the signs that have adorned the Latvian daily life since ancient times.” These meanders and line segments might well be more visible in the score than they seemed in performance. Dzenītis concludes that Fontana conveys “the musical encoding of my personal understanding of what it means to be Latvian.” I don’t know that after hearing Māra I’m any the wiser as to what it means to be Latvian. But it’s a mystical, mystifying piece I’d like to hear again.   

Given that Shostakovich completed his First Symphony in 1925, as a Leningrad Conservatory graduation exercise, when he was just 19, one could be tempted to write it off as a brilliant student work. Yet it’s hardly less mature than the Symphony in C that Bizet wrote at age 17, or the Classical Symphony that Prokofiev completed at age 26. At 30-plus minutes, the piece, which premiered with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Nikolai Malko in 1926, is less ambitious than epics like the composer’s Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth, and its textures are more transparent. But Shostakovich’s fingerprints are everywhere: the quirky, ambivalent main themes, the bittersweet lyricism of the second themes, the militant marches, the funeral marches, the helter-skelter running for cover. There’s his typical preponderance of high (violin and flute in particular) and low, as if the middle ground were off-limits. In this symphony there’s also a preponderance of piano, reminding us that at this point in his young life Shostakovich was earning money by accompanying silent films at Leningrad’s Piccadilly Cinema (now the Aurora).

The opening “Allegretto — Allegro non troppo” begins with a jittery interchange among muted trumpet, clarinet, and bassoon; you might well envision Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, with which Shostakovich was, of course, well acquainted. Are we humans more than marionettes, he seems to be asking. The second subject, a waltz for high flute, clarinet, and, later, violins, seems to answer yes, but you might also hear Petrouchka again, the Moor’s attempt to waltz with the Ballerina. The orchestra has been discreet up to this point, but it busts out in the movement’s third major section, one of those cacophonous Shostakovich marches that tightropes between proletarian revolution and totalitarian conformity. The waltz, barely audible in the development, makes its presence felt in the recapitulation, turning satirical in the process, but the march has the last word before the movement peters out, as if even the Bolshevik Revolution were no more than a ghost.

The First is a four-movement symphony with the scherzo placed second and the slow movement third. Scherzos, we all know, should be in some form of triple meter, but Shostakovich turns this one into a duple-meter galop, with prominent piano, as if the only appropriate response to the turmoil of the opening movement were to take refuge in the ballet. And though we do get triple time in the second subject, Shostakovich makes it sound like a cross between a lullaby (echoes of Stravinsky’s Firebird) and a funeral march (echoes of the plainsong “Dies irae”). The “Lento — Largo” slow movement begins with a melancholy oboe melody, undermined by uneasy string harmonies, that’s interrupted by the kind of militant trumpet figure that opens Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Once the double basses are infected with that dotted rhythm and it permeates the second subject, you know the movement is doomed, even as it continues to quote from Wagner’s Siegfried.

The finale, announced (or annunciated) by a thunderous snare-drum roll, is another of Shostakovich’s burlesques, humanity on the run from Stalin/God/life. The menacing militant motif from the slow movement returns, but now it’s inverted, and whacked out on the timpani, as if the composer had hit the reset button on human existence. What’s left is a dialogue between two hopeful themes, the Lento from the slow movement and the finale’s slow second subject (with the piano turning almost Rachmaninovian). It all builds to a powerful, unconvincing climax that never quite sheds its minor-key undertones.

The BSO has programmed Shostakovich’s First some dozen times, so it hasn’t exactly been neglected, but the orchestra hasn’t done it in Symphony Hall since 2004 (Ingo Metzmacher), and the last BSO music director to conduct it was Erich Leinsdorf, back in the 1960s. One has to wonder whether, without the Deutsche Grammophon recording contract, we would be getting all fifteen Shostakovich symphonies. Some of those still to come, like Nos. 2 (To October) and 3 (The First of May), with their Revolution-inspired choruses, may test BSO audiences. But everyone can be grateful for No. 1.

Particularly in Nelsons’s interpretation, which will deserve a place in any CD collection once the recording is released. The chamber-like textures call for top-shelf soloists, and Thursday the BSO delivered, starting with Thomas Rolfs’s muted trumpet. What started as atmospheric under Nelsons quickly turned uneasy and then nightmarish as the march kicked in and marionette Petrouchka was introduced to Communism. We got a respite, in the waltz, from Elizabeth Rowe’s flute and William Hudgins’s clarinet before the march, more raucous than ever, started up again, and when the waltz returned in the recapitulation, it had a circusy feel, as if grace had been co-opted. You could almost see Petrouchka, the Ballerina, and Moor looking about apprehensively as the movement ended.

In the Allegro second movement, with Vytas J. Baksys’s careering piano, became as much movie-cop chase as ballet galop — perhaps Shostakovich’s anticipation of Russian citizens on the run from Stalin’s secret police, a regular feature of his future symphonies. The second subject went at the same tempo but conveyed the Eastern flavor of Firebird; Nelsons turned the climax into a “Dies irae” funeral orgy, something I’m not sure Shostakovich could have anticipated but which I think he would have liked. The opening to the “Lento — Largo” can sound sour if the oboist isn’t sweetly pungent; John Ferrillo had no problem, and then in the Largo section he created a different, more somber mood. The irruptions of military rhythm soon dominated the movement, despite winsome solos from Rolfs and first associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova; it all ended with the orchestra striving for transcendence. No luck there, and then it was back on the run for the finale. More yearning from solo violin and trumpets led to an anguished climax, and when that cut out abruptly, Timothy Genis delivered a trinity of timpani annunciations, observing scrupulously (almost too scrupulously) Shostakovich’s distinctions: the first starting fff and diminishing to ppp, the second starting ff and diminishing to ppp, the third pp throughout. Blaise Déjardin’s solo cello responded with a sober Magnificat; silvery trumpets took up the movement’s second theme, and Nelsons, following Shostakovich’s “Piú mosso” and the “Presto” markings to the letter, gave us the composer’s template for “upbeat” endings that seem more like hollow victories. There are bigger first symphonies — Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler — but few better.    

As for the Nutcracker, over the past 30 years Boston Ballet — mostly under the excellent Jonathan McPhee — has presented some 40 performances a season, so it’s hardly surprising that the BSO hasn’t given much attention to Tchaikovsky’s score. Still, just eight conductors (one of them Danny Kaye) are on record as having done the Suite. Seiji Ozawa led the complete ballet (recorded by Deutsche Grammophon) in 1990 and again in 1996. Act two has been offered twice at Tanglewood but not at Symphony Hall.

It’s a modest history for such a superlative composition. The Nutcracker has been credited, rightly, as having changed the face of ballet in America (Boston Ballet would hardly be the same without it), but musicologists tend to attribute its popularity to holiday sentiment. The score was, in fact, one of Tchaikovsky’s last, having premiered in St. Petersburg in December 1892, less than a year before his death. He wasn’t altogether enthusiastic about Petipa’s scenario (which eviscerates the story source, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 novella), but what he produced in the end is hardly inferior to his final work, the Pathétique. (There are, of course, musicologists who short-shrift the Pathétique and everything else Tchaikovsky composed, but that’s a whole different conversation.)

It might appear that the story of The Nutcracker unfolds in Act One, as Clara takes the ugly Nutcracker to her heart and he in turns protects her dolls from the Mouse King, and that act two is nothing but divertissements. Actually, Act Two sees Clara’s dolls come to life, and though on one level the music represents gustatory delights (chocolate, coffee, tea), on another it gives Clara a taste of adult relationships, finishing up with the very adult grand pas de deux between the Nutcracker and the Sugar Plum Fairy. And Tchaikovsky’s score, no matter how popular it is with children, is adult as well.

Still, Nelsons’s interpretation Thursday took some getting used to. At 42 minutes, it was more expansive than Gergiev’s Mariinsky recording and in line with the mainstream timings of Ozawa, Bonynge, Previn, and Temirkanov. So it shouldn’t have sounded too fast, but to my ears, conditioned by nearly 30 years of listening to McPhee, it did. It was cogent, it had sweep, it had nuances — but they weren’t dance nuances, and I don’t know that this was a reading any ballet company could have danced to.

I certainly missed the loving attention to detail that Nelsons had made so evident in the Shostakovich. The opening Kingdom of Sweets number was quickish and string-heavy, the winds didn’t have much emotional weight (that was a problem throughout), and the trumpets’ recall of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony barely registered. It wasn’t saccharine (which happens a lot), but it wasn’t sumptuous, either. And following the arrival of Clara and the Nutcracker, there was no drama in Nutcracker’s retelling of the battle with the mice.

Chocolate (Spanish) suffered from underpowered castanets; Coffee (Arabian) was neither sinuous nor rich. Tea (Chinese) actually lumbered a bit. The Trepak (Russian) had a good energy and bright, crisp sound; Marzipan (Mirlitons) could have had more energy, Mother Ginger more humor. The Waltz of the Flowers was very compact, with a graceful lilt in the French horns, a dark power to the winter/wither middle section, and a showy but not exaggerated pause right before the end. All that was refreshing. But in the grand pas de deux for Nutcracker and Sugar Plum, the haunted initial cello melody (perhaps looking ahead to Clara’s growing up) was bereft of emotion, the Nutcracker’s tarantella variation flitted by without comment, and Sugar Plum’s variation, though gorgeous in its celesta sound, was heavy-handed in its phrasing — one could hardly envision the ballerina’s precise piqué steps on pointe. The pas de deux coda whipped by; the general coda (where the divertissement dancers return for a kind of musical bow) went at a reasonable clip for a waltz, but the apotheosis was earthbound.

Apart from there being more strings than I’m used to hearing in Nutcracker (there’s limited orchestra pit space both at the Boston Opera House and at its predecessor in hosting Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker, the Wang Theater), the BSO sounded splendid. And perhaps, for the ears of a symphony audience, Nelsons led a splendid reading. On Thursday, the notes may have danced, but Tchaikovsky wrote this score to support bodies in motion.

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.


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

  1. Congratulation on a dense, provocative review. Also, Gantz’s references to so many other composers’ influence iare eye-opening, and his credits to the many fine BSO musicians are commendable.

    In the good old days of WCRB, there was a Free Latvia program right after the Met opera broadcast that featured Latvia folk songs and other music (does anyone remember it?), all in the spirit of generating interest in the cause of freeing Latvia from Soviet domination. So I was predisposed to expect some references to folklorish themes…
    so Gantz’s “I don’t know that after hearing Māra I’m any the wiser as to what it means to be Latvian.” resonated with me.

    His comment about the worthiness of this first symphony of Shostakovich are well taken. The third movement seemed particularly mature, for someone only 19 when he wrote it. As for Gantz’s comparison to the firsts of other composers, noting how well the Shostakovich holds up, we agree… Britten’s early work, which we the week before, for example, pales by comparison.

    Comment by Bettina Antonia Norton — November 9, 2018 at 7:34 pm

  2. Back in the day, a lot of conductors we don’t associate with USSR or post-WWI music performed Shostakovich 1, including Bruno Walter and Toscanini. Can’t compare the results on either, but Dmitri’s name got out to the rest of the world very early.

    Comment by Camilli — November 10, 2018 at 11:26 am

  3. When I was in college, long, long ago, one of my teachers, the late composer Eric Salzman, stated to the class that the Ives and Shostakovich First Symphonies were the two most brilliant student symphonies ever written. I’ve had no reason to contradict that statement in the decades since. However, I think the politico-social overlay this review puts on it is overstated; after all, Stalin hadn’t even come to power yet, and Shostakovich was at the time an ardent fan of the revolution. If you take the older view that this was more of a satire on Classical-Romantic symphonies (like, but much more piquant, than Prokofiev’s), the finale’s ending becomes much more intelligible as an “oops, I’ve got to end this with something fast and loud, or no one will applaud” joke.

    Comment by Vance Koven — November 10, 2018 at 2:07 pm

  4. Thank you for the review of the Nutcracker Act II. I’m just back from Saturday’s performance. I love the Nutcracker, and I found this performance terribly disappointing. Was Nelsons racing to catch a train? There was no beauty, and the balance was off. The brass was always overwhelming.

    Comment by Julian C. Lander — November 10, 2018 at 11:28 pm

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