On a day that will in other respects live in infamy, the Boston Symphony brought together a rich program of Russians and Baltic-adjacents with a double-header of soloists. Andris Nelsons hosted compatriot Baiba Skride to reprise their 2013 collaboration on the Shostakovich A minor violin concerto, while he introduced Boston to the wonderful Finnish soprano Anu Komsi premiering the BSO-Gewandhaus-commissioned orchestration of Kaija Saariaho’s Saarikoski Songs.
First, however, the orchestra’s strings, accompanied by a single chime, established the predominantly somber tone of the evening (but for its finale) with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1976), one of those virtuosic displays of less-is-more for which Pärt is rightly acclaimed. Beginning in near-inaudibility with the intoning of the chime on the A above middle C—where it stays throughout the piece, though on different beats—the various string choirs, divisi, essay a descending A natural-minor scale to an accompaniment of polyphonically interlocked lines in long note values. The pace of the scales, and especially their dynamics, change like mood lighting, and the whole effect is mesmerizing and uncannily moving. Nelsons paced this brief requiem with perfect dignity and played the volume control with exquisite expressivity, down to the last low A of the contrabasses.
Shostakovich wrote his first violin concerto in 1947-8 for his friend David Oistrakh—in our view the greatest violinist of the 20th century—and gave it the opus number 77; but there was trouble brewing in the form of the Zhdanov Doctrine, and when Zhdanov issued a decree in 1948 applying the notions of anti-formalism to abstract music, Shostakovich realized that his new concerto probably wouldn’t pass muster. Shostakovich therefore shelved it, and it was not premiered until 1955, after Stalin was safely dead and the composer’s Tenth Symphony had been approved. Meanwhile, Oistrakh had requested some small changes, chiefly to give himself a break after the cadenza, and so the mildly revised version received a new catalogue number, 99, creating some confusion (whichever number you use, it’s the same piece, as no manuscript of the original version survives).
One can see why Shostakovich was apprehensive: there’s very little socialist bliss in this concerto. The opening movement, (out of an unusual four) called Nocturne, is a slowish, bleak and broody development of a single melodic idea, without any real glimmer of dawn. Now, nocturnes come in various moods: most common are the serene or peaceable emotions engendered by Field or Chopin; there’s also the slightly rambunctious atmosphere of the one in Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony; and there are the gentle and slightly piquant sounds of Bartók’s night music movements. But bad things can happen at night, too. For years, after his first denunciation by Stalin’s minions, Shostakovich had kept a bag always packed so that when the knock in the night arrived, he’d be prepared to go to his fate. That’s the background, reinforced by Zhdanov, of what this Nocturne should evoke. Oistrakh knew it, and his performances could creep you out. Skride was steady, measured and smooth; bleak and dreary, all right, but not in a good way. There’s a characteristic dotted rhythm in the melody that some have compared to the Elgar cello concerto, but here it was de-emphasized and flattened. A brief contrasting section around the middle features triplets, and Skride’s smoothness here would have been excellent as a contrast, but apart from the obvious rhythmic difference there was no contrast.
The second movement, marked Scherzo, is one of those manic ones Shostakovich favored—you can find your favorite among many of his pieces, ours is the D-flat major prelude and fugue from his op. 87 set of 24, which combines the sort of vulgar mindless monotony of the prelude with the truly unhinged wildness of the fugue. The roles are somewhat reversed in the concerto, with the trio episodes having the simple-minded tunes while the main section contains the eyeball-gyrating wacko stuff. It’s tough going for the soloist (as is the whole concerto; one can understand Oistrakh’s request for a breather) and Skride definitely put her arm and shoulder into it, though for our taste it was not nearly bonkers enough. This movement, incidentally, contains only the second time Shostakovich used his musical signature D-Es-C-H (it returns in the finale), the first having been in the 8th Symphony; if you were there and missed it in Nelsons’s somewhat thickly impastoed strings, you weren’t alone. The heart of the concerto, sometimes even played as a standalone, is the slow Passacaglia, whose winding, 17-measure theme, with a basic phrase ending in two emphatically repeated notes, is announced immediately in the basses but Shostakovich misdirects the listener from it with a loud and portentous brass proclamation of a Beethoven-like dot-dot-dot-dash motif that later works into the overall texture. Speaking of brass, we should mention that to give the soloist a fighting chance against the orchestra Shostakovich omitted trumpets and trombones from the scoring. Skride and Nelsons were at peak in this movement, building beautifully in dynamics, intensity and expressivity. The big solo restatement of the theme in octaves near the end was Skride at her best, both arresting and moving.
Linking the passacaglia to the finale, and bridging them thematically, is a lengthy cadenza (Shostakovich did this again in his Cello Concerto No. 1), with its fair share of pyrotechnics but predominantly wandering and pensive. It’s very hard to bring off, and once again we must report we were not fully persuaded by Skride’s deliberate and somewhat mechanical objectivity. The finale, called Burlesque, is flashy and lively in a way that invites suspicion of the composer’s motives; but at last Skride and Nelsons had something to dig their teeth into, and they brought it to a rousing conclusion.
From her beginnings in or adjacent to the Spectralist movement (focusing on the special qualities of pitches), Kaija Saariaho has expanded her range to a greater inclusion of lyrical movement, while retaining her sharp ear for sound quality and color. Good thing, too, because the five poems she set at Komsi’s request from the 1973 collection Alue (“The District”) by Pentti Saarikoski (1937-1983) present, by and large, studies in gray and brown, requiring (and getting) all the subtlety a colorist can summon. Saarikoski was among the school of Finnish poets, loosely corresponding to the “Beats” of the US, who advocated fervent political commitment in art (he joined the Communist Party in 1968), but he retained a love of Greek classics as well. Alue refracts social issues through a personal lens, focusing on late-winter scenes in an area of Helsinki where forest was being cleared for housing development. In “Luonnon kasvot” (The face of nature) Saariaho adds avian ululations to the text and much pitch bending to the orchestrated accompaniment to suggest the sounds of the vanished forest. Komsi, with a lovely tone quality, was incisive in expression (pardon us for not knowing Finnish) and direct in communication. “Jokaisella on tämänsä” (Everyone will have their own this), call it the song of the apartment blocks, is more menacing and ironically dramatic with its repeated orchestral tag line stressing the title line. In “Kaikki tämä” (All of this) brings a stillness, the voice is often unaccompanied, its rejoicing over the few things of nature that remain seeming small and isolated. “Minussa lintu ja käärme” (The bird and the snake) is pacier and menacing, featuring a primal repeated-note ostinato growling in the lower strings, and the brief finale, “Sumun läpi” (Through the mist), also relies on basses and cellos to create a foreboding sense of “petrified time” amid wisps of melody and the overwhelming gray colors. It’s not the cheeriest of landscapes, but its motivic unity and resourceful scoring, and Komsi’s stellar execution, make one want to become better acquainted with it.
The funk induced by the first three mostly downbeat offerings was alleviated by a rousing, robust and brilliant reading of the 1919 suite (second of three) from Stravinsky’s career-making Firebird ballet. It’s been so long since we’ve heard a performance of any of this music [The BSO has programed the full ballet or a suite therefrom every five years or so since 1919.] that we’d forgotten how lushly Ravelian it sounds. Not much need be said about the piece; the performances were by turns suave, well articulated, brilliant, lyrical (Nelsons took his time to lavish tender care on the Princesses’ Rondo and the Lullabye), forceful (the opening chord of Koschei’s dance was the loudest thing played all night), bright, and opulent.. In the end, every section of the orchestra was called out for plaudits, but our hat is most fervently tipped to the contrabasses, who got more of a workout in the program as a whole than just about anyone else. Props also to bass clarinetist Andrew Sandwick, who took many notable licks in the Shostakovich and elsewhere.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.