The last time Benjamin Zander programmed Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, he balanced it on the bill with another heavyweight from 20th-century Russia, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. That was back in November 2012, with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and 17-year-old local phenomenon George Li as soloist. For the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s traditional post-Thanksgiving concert Sunday at Symphony Hall, Zander chose to pair the Rachmaninov with another great Shostakovich symphony, the Tenth. They make for an intriguing couple. One is unabashedly Romantic; the other, depending on who you read, is unabashedly political or unabashedly enigmatic, with a romantic twist. They share the unusual opening tempo marking of Moderato. The concerto begins in C minor and ends in C major; the symphony begins in E minor and ends in E major. Yet the concerto has its second movement in E major and the symphony its third movement in C minor. I don’t know that Zander illuminated any further correspondences, but both the concerto, with Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova, and the symphony enjoyed fine performances from an orchestra that, as always, belied the “Youth” part of its name.
The appetizer was the Overture from Carl Maria von Weber’s Euryanthe — not Russian, but certainly Romantic. The 1823 opera is set in 12th-century France, with Adolar and Lysiart wagering as to whether Lysiart can seduce Adolar’s betrothed, Euryanthe. Lysiart actually wants Euryanthe for himself, and with the help of Eglantine, who’s in love with Adolar, he produces false evidence in the form of a ring stolen from the tomb of Euryanthe’s sister Emma. That’s the simple version of a contorted plot (which also includes a serpent); the opera was not a success, but the overture remains in the repertory, drawing on Adolar’s arias “Ich bau’ auf Gott und meine Euryanth’ ” (“I trust in God and my Euryanthe”) and “O Seligkeit, dich fass’ ich kaum!” (“O bliss, I scarce can fathom!”).
At around eight minutes, Zander’s timing ran to the quick side, but the reading didn’t sound rushed, or even fast. Rather, it packed a lot of emotion within a tight compass. The opening flourish was big and splashy; the strings’ slow theme (“O Seligkeit”), which can seem precious and even sentimental, had a bracing innocence; the muted violins’ “ghost” music (anticipating the scene where Emma kills herself) was spooky. The celebratory finish conjured a wedding march; Weber’s influence on Wagner has been noted, but here you could imagine Mendelssohn as well.
Fedorova’s Rachmaninov sounded very similar to her 2013 recording with Martin Panteleev and the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie. She was only 23 then, and the maturity of her interpretation was already evident. Although her reading Sunday, at close to 36 minutes, clocked a good four minutes slower than the composer’s austere, intellectually rigorous 1929 recording with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, it never slackened or went wayward. She made the piece personal, with her own poetry. In that sense it was exactly what a live performance should be.
The concerto’s bell-like opening chords here started slowly and softly, then built in speed and volume, creating a tension you don’t always hear in these nine bars. The second theme managed to be both languishing and impulsive; only in the development did Fedorova’s line border on literal and static. Throughout the movement her passagework was clear and bespoke an inner life. I would like to have heard more of it, but, as was the case with the BPO in 2012, the orchestra tended to cover her, even in the Maestoso (Alla marcia), where both strings and soloist are marked ff. The orchestra’s playing itself, apart from some bloopy brass, was lush and idiomatic.
Fedorova’s second movement was sober and bittersweet, with notable contributions in the first section from solo flute (Allison Parramore) and clarinet (Diego Bacigalupe). The “Un poco piú mosso” middle section was very “mosso” and built to a grandly inflected climax. The transition back to the beginning theme showed both attitude and virtuosity; Fedorova’s transitions in general were instrumental in shaping what was to come. The Allegro scherzando third movement revisited the tolling bells from the beginning, and though Fedorova’s initial treatment of the big second theme (the one that got turned into “Full Moon and Empty Arms”) was unexpectedly straight-faced, she pulled out the stops when it returned.
The pianist, it turned out, carefully planned her single encore. Fedorova’s fiancé, Boston native Nicholas Schwartz, a bassist with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, was sitting in as a guest in the BPYO bass section. The two of them gave us a transcription, for bass and piano, of Rachmaninov’s “Ne poi krasavitsa pri mne” (“Don’t sing, my beauty, to me”) for soprano and piano. And the degree of feeling and imagination Fedorova brought to her accompaniment impressed again.
The concert overall ran close to two and a half hours. I was pleased to see, upon arriving, that the piano was in position on stage; I’ve never understood why, after a 10-minute appetizer, an audience has to wait another 10 minutes for the piano to be deployed. But then the intermission was reduced to 15 minutes, and by the time I got back to my seat, Zander had already started a one-dimensional portrait of the symphony that leaned heavily on the political (“Shostakovich learned to hide his face, and he wrote in code”). The actual performance, on the other hand, proved worthy of the composer.
The Tenth premiered December 17, 1953, with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgeny Mravinsky. Josef Stalin died in March of 1953, and the symphony has been linked to Stalin ever since, even though Shostakovich’s friend the pianist Tatiana Nikolaeva asserted that he’d finished it by 1951. As so often with Shostakovich’s works, you can embrace a narrow political interpretation or you can see the symphony as a meditation on 20th-century Russia and even 20th-century humanity. What you can’t do is ignore Shostakovich’s “acronym” motto, which he created out of the German spelling of his name. In German musical notation, S stands for E-flat and H for B natural, so the sequence D/E-flat/C/B spells out DSCH, for Dmitri SCHostakowitsch. There’s also, in the third movement, a motto spelling out the first name of the young Azerbaijani composer and pianist Elmira Nazirova, whom Shostakovich had befriended in the late 1940s.
The opening Moderato begins with its own motto. This one doesn’t appear to spell out anything, but it’s a powerhouse, starting low in the cellos and basses, two rising three-note phrases that permeate the movement. The actual first theme, which emerges after a couple of minutes on solo clarinet, is based on that three-note phrase, with a mournful lilt that makes you aware that the movement is written in 3/4. It’s as if these themes want to dance but aren’t sure dancing is permitted. The second theme, which solo flute introduces after another few minutes, is a hopping sort of waltz, a little dizzy, a little debased. Over the remainder of the movement, the two themes grow hysterical and anguished before subsiding into uncertainty. A brief trombone chorale offers little consolation; the motto says a benediction over the coda, but the movement ends with high notes from the piccolos over the low motto from the cellos and basses, nothing in between.
Early Russian conductors of this symphony — Mravinsky, Kirill Kondrashin, Evgeny Svetlanov — are taut and lean in the Moderato, at 21 to 22 minutes, but the BSO’s Grammy-winning 2015 recording with Andris Nelsons holds together at 25:39, and Gustavo Dudamel has come close to 27 minutes without losing the thread. Zander took a middle road, timing in at 23 minutes. Middle in this case does not mean conservative or boring. The motto seemed soft-edged at first, but it held its own as the movement progressed. The solo clarinet (Paul Mardy) had a sad beauty, and its first theme built to a controlled panic in which you could just about hear Stalin’s secret police knocking at Shostakovich’s door. The solo flute (Parramore) set the tone for a sweet waltz, and the bassoons got plenty of air to start the development. But gradually a worse panic set in, the trumpets blasting out the waltz, the French horns playing the motto upside down, the tam-tam marking a series of crises. When these subsided, it seemed the movement had nowhere to go and nothing left to lose. The clarinets (Mardy and Tekla Nilsson) that reprised the waltz suggested a pair of cats with no particular agenda. Zander’s delicate dynamics shaped what was left, and he kept a tight rein on the closing piccolo duet (Katy Downs and Hannah Caris), not affording us any release as yet.
The Allegro second movement is the one in which, according to Solomon Volkov’s memoir book Testimony, Shostakovich depicted Stalin. Volkov has Shostakovich saying, “I did depict Stalin in . . . the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death, and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that’s the basis.”
I’m not sure how exactly one sees or hears Stalin in this movement. OK, it seems to be four to five minutes of continuous crescendo, ending in ffff. But it still sounds like other Shostakovich movements on the run, even if it’s more intense than most and less parodic. You could even try to view its boisterous excess in a positive light. Or perhaps four minutes is all Shostakovich thought Stalin was worth. In any case, the movement isn’t ugly. Zander’s reading was powerful and disturbing, but it left the ambivalence intact.
What is clear is that the Moderato, the Allegro, and the Allegretto third movement all grow out of the same rising three notes that spell out a minor third. The first movement hears the knock at the door, the second runs for cover. What’s left for the third? Shostakovich tries out a very tentative dance, almost a minuet, in 3/4; the first violins sound as if they were picking their way through rubble. When the winds enter with the waltzy second theme, obsessing on the same note, we seem to have entered a universe where dancing is even more dubious than it was in the Moderato. And then a solo French horn intervenes. It calls a dozen times, mostly in a five-note sequence that, Shostakovich told Nazirova in a letter he wrote to her, was his spelling out of her given name, in a combination of German and French notation: E; L (A as La in French); MI (E as Mi in French); R (D as Re in French); A. This sequence — E/A/E/D/A — is not musically imposing (neither is the D/E-flat/C/B of DSCH). It does release solo English horn to start up the recapitulation, whereupon the first and second themes combine in a nervous climax, and the combined efforts of the DSCH and ELMIRA mottos are required to clear the air. Even so, the DSCH motto has to tiptoe, as if past sentries, home on piccolo and flute.
The finale of a symphony that was allegedly written after Stalin’s death brings us no closer to safety. It lasts, on average, 12 minutes, and yet the woodwinds spend the first four of those circling one another in Andante revolutions. When the first theme finally emerges, it’s a jocular Allegro whistling past graveyards. The graveyards are not silent: echoes of the second movement creep in, as if Stalin’s ghost had overheard the proceedings. With the forceful entrance of the snare drum, it seems that arrests are about to be made, but the DSCH motto returns to avert catastrophe. Stalin limps away, slowly; solo bassoon starts up with the first theme, now jaunty, as if evil had been banished for good. Yet the closing pages, with themes from the entire symphony, have to be held in place by the DSCH motto. Stalin might be gone, but the Soviet remains.
It might seem a backhanded compliment to say that Zander succeeded in these two final movements by not asserting himself. What he asserted, though, was Shostakovich. This Tenth wasn’t grimly cynical or naively optimistic. Now savage, now sorrowful, but entirely without self-pity, it did justice to what Russia experienced in the first half of the 20th century. One could single out, in those last two movements, the solo contributions of flute (Parramore), oboe (Elias Medina), English horn (Ryoei Kawai), bassoon (Jensen Bocco), and especially, the ELMIRA French horn (Thomas Ossi). But listening to the overall enthusiasm and energy on display, I began to think that “Youth” in an orchestra’s name should be a positive.
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.