Tuesday night’s BSO subscription concert delivered a journey of tragedy (Shostakovich’s against the Soviet system), artistic warmth (as regarded in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1809) and the lamenting hope of Dvořák’s New World.
Rudolf Barshai’s string-orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, Op. 110 (1960), perhaps his most autobiographical work, continued the BSO’s Deutsche Grammophon Shostakovich cycle. The slow, heart-wrenching Largo of Chamber Symphony in C Minor, Opus 110 put the listeners in an almost gashing daze. The BSO string section carried this piece with intense spirit. The second movement Allegro Molto wakes us up with dotted rhythms and lots of dissonant chords. It required immense physical endurance for the players to keep projecting this forceful work that’s based on the composer’s “D-Es-C-H” signature. Transitions between movements sounded rough, and togetherness, at moments, absented itself, but the most disappointing aspect came from premature clapping. This work requires the deepest intensity from performers as well as listeners. As the music fades into the slow, dreary, bare finale, where the last chord is waiting to be resolved (although ultimately isn’t), a sudden hand-clap killed the atmosphere that BSO had built so eloquently.
The force majeure pianist Yefim Bronfman joins BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons and the orchestra for two January programs. In Tuesday’s concert he played Beethoven’s lyrical, warm Piano Concerto No. 4that was first introduced the audience on December 22, 1909. There was something “entirely new and not yet heard in public” (as advertised in the press). Instead of the grandiose gestures meant merely for pianistic display, the concerto focuses on a more affectionate style. The very opening, so unusual for the time, signals this new path. The piano begins alone, playing a beautifully simple tune in full chords in the middle register, marked piano, dolce (“softly, sweetly”). Bronfman took the stage and set the tone for the Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4: Allegro moderato with a brief solo projected with authority. After his introduction the BSO expanded on his interpretation while providing a gentle, restrained accompaniment. After a while Bronfman entered, displaying his complete mastery of the instrument―virtuosic, yet reserved. His communication with Nelsons was seamless and his effortless cadenzas have remained with me. Overall, this worthy example of bravura style and refinement deserved its raucous demand for an encore! Bronfman complied with the last movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 7.
After the intermission, we found ourselves in a beautiful world of pentatonic scales, or a musical hodge-podge as Dvořák stated in an 1893 interview:
I found that the music of the negroes and of the Indians was practically identical, [although] I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.
The Czech composer’s New World Symphony is the most important piece he composed during his years in the U.S., when he was director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. The beloved four-movement symphony uses musical elements shared by both North American and Czech folk music. In case one hasn’t heard, Dvořák actually re-composed some of the leitmotifs from his sketchbook to make them more obviously pentatonic, or more “American” rather. The clearest case of this is the English horn solo at the beginning of the slow movement, which in the original sketch lacked most of the dotted notes and had no feeling of pentatonic quality. Nelsons brought passion and resilience to the New World, though the audience seemed to have been spent by extremely taxing Shostakovich, and many seats had emptied. The English horn solos and the entire wind section shone brightly through the darkest of nights. The conductor added his own twist at the end, “sculpting” a chord as if it were a fragile clay figurine. Exquisite programming beautifully played.