Music Director Andris Nelsons and his estimable BSO partners played a particularly noteworthy program last week. Samuel Barber’s impressive Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, op. 23A opened Saturday night’s concert with a reading very much up to its considerable demands. Charles Munch and the BSO gave the first Boston performance on November 2, 1956. The world premiere had been given by Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic February 2, 1956.
Munch and the BSO recorded the music April 10, 1957 according to James H. North’s admirable “BSO—An Augmented Discography”—in a sizzling performance that in my mind still tops the list of recordings made of it. Yet, hearing Nelson’s carefully crafted and virtuosic interpretation, abetted by today’s BSO members and heard live in Symphony Hall, made me wish that the microphones hovering above the stage had recorded this fiery performance as well as the next-up Shostakovich.
Indeed, Rudolf Barshai’s 1967 orchestration of Shostakovich’s 1960 String Quartet No. 8—in this version called Chamber Symphony in C Minor, Opus 110—received a searingly intense reading from the full string section of the BSO. The original quartet version is heavy with emotional weight. Imagine what the full forces of today’s BSO strings could—and did—bring to this music. Barshai’s augmented version for string orchestra adds, of course, contrabasses to the mix. This organ-pedal like bass reinforcement adds weight to the overall proceedings, already fraught with deep emotion and many cries de coeur, and rife with repetitions of the composer’s “D-Es-C-H” aural monogram. Nelsons and the BSO succeed in bringing virtually everything that this score requires, continuing an impressive series of Shostakovich interpretations over the past several seasons.
After intermission I heard possibly the finest live performance in my concert-going experience of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony.
What made it so? First of all, the playing on both individual and ensemble levels. Under James Levine’s demanding tutelage, precision and panache obtained. Nelsons added warmth and flexibility. So now, in certain repertoire, we enjoy the best of both. When this alchemy is lavished upon romantic repertoire, the results can be astonishing. Add to this the world-class contributions of the Orchestra’s first-desk players—I’m thinking of the nonpareil English horn solos of Robert Sheena, the gorgeous tone brought by flautist Elizabeth Rowe and those of the entire wind section they lead—especially in the second movement, where Nelsons seemed to have brought a fresh set of musical eyes and ears to the score’s pages. Everything wonderful was audible in Saturday evening’s performance-tempo, perfectly judged rubato, sensitively shaped phrasing, noble playing as described above—and Dvořák’s much-loved symphony attained heights of emotion and genuine gusto as to seem simply ideal.
In a series of recent laudable Andris Nelsons/BSO performances over the past 12 -18 months, this entire concert rose close to the windswept summit. As Richard Buell often memorably wrote, “received with gratitude.”
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 40 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 47 years.