The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s paired Britten’s Violin Concerto with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar) in this weekend’s concerts. These pieces don’t exactly celebrate the merry month of May. They were written within a few years of each other; one anticipates the horrors of World War II and the other reflects on them. For the Britten, music director Andris Nelsons has a familiar soloist in Augustin Hadelich. Babi Yar calls for a male soloist and choir; Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov was originally scheduled to sing in this weekend’s concerts but withdrew for family reasons; German baritone Matthias Goerne appeared in his place. On Thursday, Hadelich sounded splendid, and the Babi Yar will make a fitting conclusion to the BSO’s recorded cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon.
Britten wrote his Violin Concerto in 1938–1939, just as Germany was annexing Czechoslovakia and a European war seemed inevitable. Both homosexual and a conscientious objector, Britten was a bad candidate for the military, and in 1939 he and his roommate, Peter Pears, joined W. H. Auden in a house in Brooklyn Heights, where they entertained the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Salvador Dalí. Britten and Pears were friends at the time, but romance blossomed as Britten finished the concerto, and they remained together until Britten’s death in 1976.
Composed in the shadow of the recent Spanish Civil War as well that of an imminent World War II, the Violin Concerto got its premiere from Spanish soloist, Antonio Brosa, in 1940, with John Barbirolli leading the New York Philharmonic. Its three-movement form is traditional, but the movements themselves are unusual for a concerto: a Moderato con moto to start, then a Vivace, and finally a Passacaglia. Like Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Britten’s opens with martial-tinged timpani strokes, here a five-note figure that’s capped off by a soft cymbal clash. The motif is repeated three times; its rhythm will underpin, and undercut, the entire first movement, both the melody Britten marked “dolce ed espressivo” and the more militant second theme. The recapitulation lets the orchestra play the first theme, which now sounds rather Spanish, while the violin accompanies with the timpani rhythm. The coda returns the first theme to the violin, which languishes even as the orchestra threatens to march off to war.
The Vivace is a spooky affair that, like many a Shostakovich scherzo, suggests a protagonist on the run. A high-pitched lamenting middle section is punctuated by an unusual duet for piccolos and tuba. The cadenza finds the soloist plucking out the timpani rhythm, segueing into the first theme from the Moderato con moto, and finally playing both at once, the melody arco and the rhythm pizzicato. That leads directly into the Passacaglia, which the trombones, who’ve been silent till now, start as a threnody, the violin still musing on its first-movement theme. Soloist and orchestra exchange memories over the course of the eight variations. The extended coda finds the orchestra trying to settle into D major while the violin repeats the same the phrase over and over and winds up stranded between F and F sharp.
The BSO didn’t program this concerto till 1993, when concertmaster Malcolm Lowe was the soloist with James Conlon. Frank Peter Zimmermann and Gil Shaham have done it since, but Nelsons is the first BSO music director to lead it. Hadelich, who was born in Italy of German parents but now resides in the US, made his BSO debut at Tanglewood in 2012 playing the Barber Violin Concerto. Since then he’s joined the orchestra at Tanglewood for concertos by Mozart (No. 4) and Sibelius and at Symphony Hall for the Ligeti and Beethoven concertos and Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello (with Alban Gerhardt).
Hadelich’s popularity is no mystery. He combines intensity of phrasing with beauty of tone; there’s no squeaking, even in the highest register. In that regard, he’s a good match for Nelsons. Thursday he was sweet, bittersweet, anguished, and sorrowful by turns. In the middle of the Moderato con moto, as the timpani rhythm in the orchestra became more insistent, his agitation suggested a world coming unglued. Nelsons created a lush, languid Spanish flavor in the recapitulation, and then Hadelich soared into the stratosphere, trying to stop time even as the timpani rhythm ticked on.
The Vivace was a jittery affair, with the orchestra in hot pursuit. When Hadelich stopped to mourn, the orchestra, crisp and menacing, cut him off; the duet between piccolos (Cynthia Meyers and Renée Krimsier) and tuba (Mike Roylance), the high and low of the orchestra with nothing in between, conjured a spooky underworld. A huge orchestral climax prompted the cadenza, where Hadelich bowing and plucking at once, made a unit out of the melody and the timpani rhythm. The BSO trombones seemed to emerge out of nowhere; this moment where the third movement starts even before the second has ended was magical. A moody, weighted string chorale followed, with echoes of the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Hadelich was querulous in the first variation, then struck up a dialogue with the horns in the second; Amanda Hardy contributed a sinuous oboe solo to the third. Lilting waltzes, perhaps a reflection on better times, were cut short by brass fanfares; the orchestra’s final statement of the Passacaglia theme surged but never quite convinced before dissipating. Hadelich’s long goodbye recalled the “Abschied” of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Both Hadelich and Nelsons froze for some 15 seconds when the concerto did end; this can be an irritating gesture, but here it seemed appropriate.
Hadelich brought to his one encore, the Sarabanda from Bach’s Partita No. 2, a singing line and an unaffected command of the shifting emotions.
Shostakovich never officially called his Thirteenth Symphony Babi Yar — the name appears neither in his manuscript nor on the published score. But he might have been tempted to call it “The Composer Strikes Back.” Ever since Josef Stalin turned thumbs down on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936 and the infamous “Muddle Instead of Music” review appeared in Pravda, Shostakovich was having to tiptoe through the minefield of Soviet censorship. He was compelled to renounce and withdraw his Fourth Symphony; it didn’t premiere until 1961. His Fifth featured an ambivalent finale that the authorities misread as celebration; his Seventh, the Leningrad, was seen to represent that city’s heroic resistance to Hitler when in fact it was about Leningrad under Stalin. He was denounced again in 1948. Even after Stalin’s death, he was reduced to “promoting” the Revolution in symphonies like No. 11 (The Year 1905) and No. 12 (The Year 1917).
By 1962, it seems Shostakovich had had enough. Symphony No. 13 is a choral work whose text, five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, is hardly a paean to life in the Soviet Union. “Babi Yar” takes as its starting point the Nazis’ 1941 massacre of 34,000 Jews in a ravine near Kyiv and the Soviets’ failure to erect any memorial; it goes on to rail against anti-Semitism. The narrator identifies with Alfred Dreyfus, with Jesus, with a victim of the Białystok pogrom, with Anne Frank; he ends by saying that though no Jewish blood runs in his veins, his hatred of anti-Semitism makes him a true Russian! (On any list of Russians who actually did hate anti-Semitism, Shostakovich would be top.) In “Humor,” we’re reminded that the rulers of the world can’t command Humor, can’t buy him, can’t kill him. “In the Shop” pays tribute to the women who, having already mixed concrete and plowed and harvested, now wait in line, shopping bags in hand, for the meager produce on offer. “Fears” (which Yevtushenko wrote at Shostakovich’s request) recalls the Stalinist years when people screamed when they should have kept silent and kept silent when they should have screamed. Finally, “A Career” distinguishes between those who, for the sake of a career, sacrificed the truth and those who, like Galileo, did not. Shakespeare, Pasteur, Newton, and Tolstoy are held up as models; Yevtushenko hopes that his career will live up to theirs. He ends by saying, “I pursue my career / by not pursuing it!”
Such thoughts wouldn’t have passed muster in Stalinist’s Soviet Union, and they weren’t exactly popular with the authorities in Khrushchev’s time. Evgeny Mravinsky, who had led the premieres of Shostakovich’s Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Twelfth Symphonies, declined No. 13. The proposed bass soloist, Borys Hmyria, withdrew, citing as his reason the dubious text. Eventually Kirill Kondrashin agreed to conduct, but he was under pressure to withdraw, or at least omit the “Babi Yar” movement. The bass soloist Kondrashin had lined up, Viktor Nechipailo, failed to appear at the dress rehearsal, and Vitaly Gromadsky had to step in. Kondrashin led two performances in 1962; the program book did not include the texts, and there was no review from Pravda. Early in 1963 Yevtushenko was prevailed upon to write a more politically palatable version of “Babi Yar.” Even with this revised text, the symphony did not receive many performances in Russia, and it wasn’t heard in America till 1970, after Mstislav Rostropovich smuggled out a copy of the score in his cello case at the request of Eugene Ormandy. In his Philadelphia Orchestra recording, Ormandy, like every conductor since, sticks with Yevtushenko’s original text. The sole representative of the revision is a recording Kondrashin made in 1965; no surprise that the CD booklet, at least in the current Melodiya incarnation, includes no texts.
Yevtushenko’s poetry is so powerful, it’s easy to overlook Shostakovich’s score. But No. 13 is a real symphony, not just a cantata or song cycle. The first movement, “Babi Yar,” is actually in sonata form. A tolling bell introduces a slow striding march in the lower winds and pizzicato lower strings and then the chorus’s opening “Above Babi Yar there is no memorial,” which, with its close intervals, suggests Russian Orthodox chant, Russian folk tunes, and Jewish melodies all at once. Shostakovich will use these three elements throughout the symphony. The raucous second theme, which enters with the words “It seems to me that I am a little boy in Białystok,” conjures anti-Semitic violence. The bell continues to toll during the development, which introduces Anne Frank and the dreaded knock at the door (another recurring motif). Then the chorus begins the recapitulation by returning to the opening words (“Above Babi Yar”) and melodic ideas.
“Humor” is a rollicking affair in which, for once in a Shostakovich scherzo, the pursued eludes his pursuers. Shostakovich even recycled the setting of the gallows dance “MacPherson’s Farewell” that he’d written for his Six Songs (Romances) by Raleigh, Burns and Shakespeare. The symphony’s two slow movements follow. “In the Shop” replaces the tolling bell with a wood block whose ticking-clock sound suggests the women’s patience and persistence. A mournful tuba kicks off the fourth movement; Yevtushenko’s poem pretends that “Fears” are a thing of the past, but he and Shostakovich knew better. Shostakovich rings another transformation on the “Babi Yar” themes as a pair of flutes open “A Career,” and then a solo bassoon hops about as merrily as Humor himself. The meter shifts to 3/4, plucked strings strike up a delicate waltz, and out of nowhere Shostakovich throws in a fugue, because that’s what composers with a career (as opposed to careerists) do. The bassoon scampers on; the bell tolls. After the bass soloist has finished, the strings sing the flute theme sweetly enough to be portraying Shakespeare’s Juliet, and then the celesta, as so often in Shostakovich, liberates the soul. Its escape is accompanied by one final tolling of the bell.
The BSO first played Babi Yar in 1982, under André Previn. Kurt Masur and Gennady Rozhdestvensky have programmed it since, but, as with the Britten, Nelsons is the first BSO music director to lead it, and as with the Britten, he made his points with clarity and sonority. Babi Yar can go as fast as 54 minutes (Kondrashin) and as slow as 68 (Riccardo Muti); Nelsons was close to 68, but this was an alert, bracing interpretation, taut in rhythm, varied in pacing and volume, sensitive to the nuances of the text, and with an orchestra that could go from sublime to snarky in a heartbeat.
The printed program did not include the Russian text, but supertitles offered a good English translation. The color, pale blue, may have been a tribute to the Ukrainian flag, but it didn’t make for the easiest reading, at least not from my second-balcony seat. The male chorus, drawn from the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the New England Conservatory Symphonic Choir, was excellent in both energy and enunciation.
I don’t know how much notice Goerne had for these performances. He came out with his score, laid it on a stand, and sang from it throughout, his head somewhat bowed. His energetic hand gestures bespoke a genuine engagement with the text, but I found it hard to make out the words as he sang them. And I hoped for more variety in both voice and approach; I heard sorrow and anger and heroic resistance in abundance, humor not so much. He could be transporting when he sang softly, as in the “Oni tikho” moment in “In the Shop” when the women wait quietly, “kind gods of family.”
I liked the way Nelsons brought out the allusion to the Russian folk song “Akh vy seni moi seni” that follows a grain merchant’s beating up the mother of the little boy in in Białystok; it leads into the singer’s assertion that real Russians are internationalists and not anti-Semites. Vytas Baksys’s celesta all but wafted Anne Frank to freedom before the knock at the door arrived and the orchestra erupted as cataclysmically and kaleidoscopically as Shostakovich could have wished, with no stinting on timpani (Timothy Genis), bass drum, cymbals, or tam-tam. “Humor” featured the chorus breaking into a jaunty march when Humor is “a popular tune striding along with a rifle to the Winter Palace.”
“In the Shop” begins and ends with the cellos and basses reworking “Babi Yar” material; Nelsons wove a hypnotic web here. Goerne was affecting in the account of how the women “have endured”; celesta and two harps (Jessica Zhou and Krysten Keches) suggested their reward; the orchestra erupted again in its outburst against those who short-change and short-weight women. Roylance’s tuba solo in “Fears” was full of dynamic finesse; Goerne and chorus and orchestra all whispered like people who still fear being overheard, and the door motif returned in a third cataclysm. The burbling flutes that opened “A Career” were almost mystical, and then Richard Svoboda’s bassoon might have been Shostakovich thumbing his nose at the authorities. The orchestra shrieked and cooed, the strings waltzed, the fugue strutted, bass clarinet (Andrew Sandwick) took up the bassoon theme, Goerne embodied Shostakovich’s quiet resolve, the strings reprised the flute melody, and that, finally given to the celesta, became a celestial dance. Again Nelsons froze at the end, and again that was just right; celesta and tolling bell could sink in before the applause started.
NB: Associate Principal Bassoon Richard Ranti, who will be retiring at the end of the European tour this summer, will be taking a bow at Saturday night.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 45 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.