The New England Philharmonic’s “People in Between” reflected on individuals trapped in political turmoil; its centerpiece carried a particular local distinction. You wouldn’t think the BSO had ever played any work as many as 15 times in a calendar year, but that really did happen back in 1942. Even more remarkably, Serge Koussevitzky and the orchestra didn’t give the first of those 15 performances till mid-August. And the composer wasn’t Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms — it was Dmitri Shostakovich. Held up as a symbol of Russia’s resistance to Nazi Germany, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, Leningrad, was the toast of America in 1942. Although substantial enough to hold down a program by itself, Sunday at the Tsai Performance Center it was prefaced by Adeliia Faizullina’s Bolghar, for Quray and Symphony Orchestra (2021), and Thomas de Hartmann’s Violin Concerto (1943), with soloist Danielle Maddon. That made for a long — close to three hours — and demanding afternoon, but the NEP and music director Tianhui Ng rose to the challenge.
Bolghar, Faizullina’s helpful program note explained, is a Volga River city in the Russian republic of Tatarstan, possibly as old as the eighth century. Faizullina described it as “a beautiful town, surrounded by some forests, woods, and fields. Its beauty comes from its monuments, temples, museums, and mosques. . . . To me, this place is an intersection of moments of time. . . . I bought a quray there (like a western pennywhistle).” She went on to explain that Bolghar features the quray, which she called “the Tatar folk instrument.”
Faizullina was scheduled to play the quray solos on Sunday, but she had to bow out because of health reasons, and the NEP instead presented what I gather is her alternative version for three flutes. Ng preceded the eight-minute work with a recorded quray sample that gave the audience an idea of how the original would have sounded.
Bolghar did find itself “in between” the city’s past and present, though I wonder how evident that would have been without the program note. Rustling, shimmering, exotic percussion was followed by the tin-whistley flutes of street musicians, then by cascading harp and sounds wafted on the air like the ghosts of ancient voices. Every so often the orchestra would erupt into a modern traffic jam; then it would slip back into the past, harmonics and open strings communing with nature, suspending time. The three flutes bridged city and country; the piece dissolved like ripples of water and appeared to have ended, only for the flutes to have the last word.
Thomas de Hartmann was born in Ukraine in 1884; he wrote his Violin Concerto in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1943, after Germany had invaded Ukraine in 1941. He dedicated it to his friend Albert Bloch, who had played Hartmann’s Violin Sonata and who was in hiding near Cannes at the time; the work didn’t premiere until 1947, after Bloch’s death. Hartmann called it his “klezmer concerto,” but the piece, whose four movements run nearly 40 minutes, reflects the composer’s immersion in Russian Romanticism, Impressionism, Modernism, jazz, and bitonality as well. Evan A. MacCarthy’s program note stated that “the Violin Concerto mourns the destruction of Ukraine by war.” The Largo — Vivace con brio — Allegro risoluto first movement brings agitated folk dances, consoling lullabies, and militant outbursts (cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, timpani); the theme and variations of the Andante second put the soloist in mournful dialogue with the orchestra, particularly the harp. The Menuet fantasque flits by in just 23 measures and still finds room for a drone-drenched trio; the Vivace finale — into which Hartmann incorporated the Russian folk dance Kamarinskaya — is all dance and flight and then dance again, the orchestra laughing through its tears.
Danielle Maddon is the NEP’s concertmaster; she also performs with Boston Baroque, Boston Musica Viva, Emmanuel Music, the Boston Pops, the Cantata Singers, and the Boston Cecilia. She brought a score out and set it on her music stand, but I didn’t see her look at it, and she played as if she didn’t need it. To judge from a first hearing, the concerto conveys the general affect of a protest against war but not necessarily the particulars of the Nazi invasion of Ukraine, and I didn’t detect a pronounced klezmer flavor. I was more impressed by Maddon, who was a good ambassador for the piece. She gave tonal variety and shape to the full range of Hartmann’s emotions, her instrument keening one moment, kicking up its heels the next; her upper register whispered secrets and was never squeaky. Ng provided colorful support, with some sour winds and brass in the first movement, some disquieting moments in the second, and a deliberately ugly outburst to begin the finale. All hands were on board for the concluding measures, yet the tambourine was palpable, and that augured well for the demands of the Shostakovich.
The Leningrad has quite a backstory. Shostakovich began it in Leningrad, but when the Nazis besieged the city, he had to finish it in Kuibyshev, where it premiered in March 1942. The West saw the symphony as a symbol of Russian resistance to fascism; interest was intense. The score on microfilm made its way from Russia to Washington, DC, via Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Brazil. Arturo Toscanini, Artur Rodziński, Leopold Stokowski, and Serge Koussevitzky vied for the American premiere; Toscanini won out, leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a radio broadcast July 19, 1942. That same week, Shostakovich, dressed as a firefighter on the rooftop of the Leningrad Conservatoire, became the first composer to appear on the cover of Time magazine. By the end of the year, the Leningrad had been given 62 times in America. In Leningrad itself, where the citizens were starving, Karl Eliasberg collected enough musicians to play the symphony on August 9, 1942. The performance was a huge success; it’s reported that the audience responded with an hour-long ovation. The piece was surely an inspiration to the city as it strove to breach the Nazi blockade, which it did early in 1943.
After World War II, however, the Leningrad became less popular outside of Russia. It’s not hard to understand why. The Cold War, to start. Also, the Seventh is Shostakovich’s longest symphony; Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra runs 85 minutes. The orchestration includes piccolo, alto flute, English horn, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, six trumpets, eight French horns, six trombones, tuba, and three snare drums amid the usual percussion array. Most of all, the Seventh isn’t really more accessible than Shostakovich’s other symphonies. Its most familiar feature is the “Invasion March” from the opening Allegretto, where Shostakovich has the orchestra play a banal, 22-measure ostinato 12 times, upping the orchestration with each repetition. He’s thought to have been inspired by Ravel’s Boléro, but just what he meant by this eight-and-a-half-minute sequence is unclear. Béla Bartók seems to have interpreted it as a tribute to Stalin. Bartók might well have wondered why Shostakovich was lionized in America while he himself was ignored; in any event, he parodied the sequence in the fourth movement of his Concerto for Orchestra. Soviet propaganda had it that the sequence represented the German invasion of Leningrad, but of course the Nazis never did march into the city. In Solomon Volkov’s controversial Shostakovich memoir Testimony, the composer is said to have declared that the Seventh “is not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad Stalin destroyed and Hitler finished off.”
Even that might be too simple an explanation. The Seventh begins with a confident striding theme. Two decades later, Shostakovich prompted Yevgeny Yevtushenko to add a fifth poem to the four the composer had chosen for his Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar), and his setting of that poem, “Fears,” rises to an anguished climax with the fear “of trusting oneself overmuch.” That idea could well apply to the Seventh’s opening theme; heroic and self-congratulatory, it ignores the four-note warning signal sent out by the woodwinds, as well as the pastoral second theme. This second theme, led by piccolo and violin, gets dreamy, timeless; it just wants to keep going. Probably because it knows it will be excluded from the development.
Cue the “Invasion March.” Shostakovich was, we’re told, making fun of a number from Die lustige Witwe, Count Danilo’s “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim,” on the ground that Franz Lehár’s 1905 comic operetta was a favorite of Hitler’s. I don’t hear a strong connection between the two descending motifs in question, and in any case Hitler had other musical favorites and I don’t see Shostakovich stooping to poke fun at this one. What I do hear is the snare drum starting up a trivial tune that has links to the first theme and morphs into a parade march complete with tanks. Each repetition is noisier and more vulgar than the last, and when all 12 have gone by, the march’s various elements try to shout one another down, as if they were squabbling members of the Supreme Soviet Presidium. As so often in Shostakovich, the development crashes into the recapitulation, where the first theme is tarnished by what it has sown and the second limps along behind. Even as the coda tries to figure out what just happened, the snare drum strikes up in the distance, and muted trumpets keep the tanks rolling.
Shostakovich’s scherzo movements tend to suggest Soviet citizens on the run. This one, Moderato poco allegretto, is more of a jaunt into the country, a chance to reset. Oboe sounds a note of regret, English horn of nostalgia; it all trips like Romeo and Juliet-era Prokofiev. But even in the country, marches break out; here E-flat clarinet prompts one that recalls the ambivalent finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. The Adagio might have been prefaced by T. S. Eliot’s “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” A harmonically uneasy chorale argues with an anguished violin recitative before an optimistic solo flute mediates. It’s the calm before the storm of yet another march, this one also initiated by snare drum, and as in the first movement the initial themes are left to pick up the pieces afterward. The flute melody is taken up by the violas, which sound almost apologetic; the chorale descends into clarinets, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon, everything finished off by three strokes from the tam-tam.
That leads directly into the Allegro non troppo finale, which, unsurprisingly, meanders about until a rising six-note figure steps forward. It knows where it wants the movement to go, and that’s toward, yes, one last march, this one turning orgiastic and ending with snap pizzicatos. A middle section of queasy Brucknerian reflection combines the odd harmonies from the Adagio with the martial rhythms of the “Invasion March.” Then the six-note theme resumes, resilient, uplifting, until finally the trombones invite the symphony’s initial theme back in. Whether this is a good idea Shostakovich leaves for the listener to decide. Like his Fifth, the Seventh ends with everyone pounding away at the same notes over and over. No symphony ending in C major has ever sounded so much like The Empire Strikes Back.
Tempo in the Seventh, like tempo generally, has gotten slower over the years. Karl Eliasberg, who led the Leningrad premiere, and Kirill Kondrashin, reliably the speediest of Shostakovich conductors, took about 72 minutes each. Andris Nelsons in his 2011 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra recording took 74 minutes, but his 2017 BSO performances ran close to 80. That can be time well spent if the conductor keeps a firm grip on the proceedings and pays close attention to the composer’s many instructions. Ng did just that. He was a composed figure on the podium; there was nothing flashy or particularly imaginative about his reading, but neither was it ever gray (the bane of Shostakovich interpretations, especially the slow ones). The four movements ran 30, 12, 20, and 17 minutes, which I think is just about right. What needed weight had weight; what needed to move forward moved forward; what needed to sing sang. And what had to be brutal was brutal without getting hysterical. Just one example of the care Ng took was the way, in the Adagio, that he eased back into the chorale at rehearsal number 141, observing Shostakovich’s ritardando marking.
But it’s not the easiest symphony to play, even discounting the many exposed wind solos, and I wondered how the NEP would fare after the 50 minutes it had already spent on stage. The solos were never a cause for concern. The flute (Michael Horowitz) that introduced the Allegretto’s second theme was magical. So was the bassoon (George Muller) at the end of the movement’s development. Oboe (Barbara Midney), English horn (Carol Louik), E-flat clarinet (Danbi Cho), and bass clarinet (Joseph D. Kanapka) all shone in the Moderato, and then solo flute again in the second subject of the Adagio. Ng took the “Invasion March” at a very modest tempo, but, thanks in no small part to the consistent snare drum work, he achieved clarity with no loss of momentum. The violas toward the end of the Adagio were especially beautiful; I wished the tam-tam had been a shade louder, but Shostakovich marked it pp and that’s what the percussionist delivered. Kudos to the trombones at the end and to the entire orchestra for still going full throttle after 80 minutes. The Leningrad is a great symphony (also a personal favorite), and live performances don’t come along every year. This one was a gift.
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.