Half-way through Saturday night’s concert at the Koussevitzky Shed, Andris Nelsons turned to the audience. He thanked us for being there, then told us that the BSO and he would be touring Europe starting on the next day, hoping to bring the BSO’s “unique sound” to new audiences. Rarely have I heard that unique sound more vividly than in the two Russian works that were performed that night and will be heard again at London’s Albert Hall as early as next week. Leonidas Kavakos joined Nelsons in a stunning interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. The second half featured Prokofiev’s massive Symphony No. 5.
Tchaikovsky’s only violin concerto, born out of the disaster of his short-lived marriage, arrived to treated savage treatment from the critics. As with his first piano concerto, decades later it became one of the best-loved works in the repertoire. What struck me most in last was the persistent and unrelenting sadness that Kavakos gave to the reading. He completely hid the virtuosity, likely not wanting virtuosity to be the focus. Rather, he called on us to hear the deep psychic pain that pervades the whole work, even when it expresses itself in the form of a frantic reaction. If the first theme was sad, almost weeping, the second theme surpassed it in sadness, like a drawn-out lament. Kavakos imbued the closing theme with a manic frenzy rather than joy, expressing a level of despair so deep that it could only twist itself into an agonizing cry for deliverance. Against this multiple-faced agony, the orchestra made strong, direct statements, a kind of bravado. Kavakos gave the cadenza such a depressive texture that it took on a sort of Chaconne-like power. If the first theme in the recapitulation put forth a glimmer of hope, and if the coda expressed fortitude, it is only because the orchestra coaxed Kavakos into stabilizing psychic pain through tenderness, making it unmovable.
The second movement Canzonetta Andante explored psychic pain through gentle supplication, bittersweet remembrance and thickening solitude. Aware but impervious, the orchestra conveyed the limitless indifference of the cosmos to our human fate. When Elizabeth Klein’s surprisingly stern flute answered Kavakos’s call de profundis, we sensed that pain cannot be dispelled but must erupt attaca subito into episodic disorder, leading us without respite into the Finale Allegro Vivacissimo. Much like the dumka, a form of peasant dance that Tchaikovsky knew well, the concluding movement alternated between mania and depression, depicting psychic pain as triggering both lethargy and directionless excitation. Fatalism rather than joy thus marked the Vivacissimo of the last movement. Kavakos and Nelsons achieved a radically fresh interpretation of the folkloric athleticism that the score indicates. They eschewed a superficial interpretation , rather laceing the climax with new increments of psychic pain, sardonic and self-mocking.
In response to the audience’s warm applause, Kavakos played the Largo from Bach’s Third Sonata, BWV 1005, as an encore. Grave and sober, quietly demanding our full attention, Kavakos reiterated the message that beauty lies far deeper than virtuosity.
Prokofiev wrote about his Symphony No. 5, Op. 100, that he intended to glorify “the grandeur of the human spirit” and to praise “the free and happy man — his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul.” After years of gestation and trials, Prokofiev conducted the premiere on January 13, 1945, in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Koussevitzky, who conducted the American premiere with the BSO in November of the same year, declared: “It is magnificent. It is yesterday, it is today, it is tomorrow.” Nelsons and today’s BSO emphasized Prokofiev’s assimilation of Shostakovich, giving a powerful beauty to a distinctly fatalistic interpretation of the work.
The first movement Andante seemed indeed to glorify “free and peaceful man” as sweeping themes of fortitude mingled with solidly earthy brass to spread out into the evening, celebrating communal effort and achievement, toil and sweat rather than blood and soil. The movement’s climax – glorious, bright and massive — exemplified the BSO’s ability to create a full, beautiful, unique sound. Yet the massive unity of the climax culminated in glorious majesty.
The Allegro marcato, introduced disarray, at first through menacing smiles, then through rapid and sarcastic jolts and grins, raucous winds and grimacing strings, Shostakovich-like in idiom while remaining true to Prokofiev’s talent for melodies. Here we heard the BSO’s unique sound at its best, explosive but controlled, edgy but enigmatic; articulate and precise in each contributing voice yet producing a powerful collective effect far greater than the sum of its parts, somehow glowing with a golden aura. Was this movement questioning the reality of “happy and free man,” substituting a darker insight into human complexity while embracing the complexity as darkly magnificent? (viz. W. H. Auden, “Mortal, guilty, but to me the entirely beautiful.”)
Offering us a new possibility, the slow and solemn Adagio processed like a funeral, with the BSO leaking sadness into every zone of the acoustic space. Nelsons led us into an elegiac mid-section. If the woodwinds and brass subverted the gravity, Jessica Zhou’s wonderful harp mocked it with a burlesque clicking, denouncing gravity as posturing gravitas, unconvincing and untrue. Are we deep enough to feel real sorrow or repentance, the harp pondered. Yet as soon as this unbearable lightness dropped its mask, angelic hope returned.
Nelsons took the last movement Allegro giocoso at a moderate pace, allowing breath for the playfulness. The muted opening, hearkening back to the first theme of the first movement (“praising free and happy man”,) gave way to a swirling dance of syncopated rhythms in the form of a rondo, interrupted with peaceful episodes in Elizabeth Rowe’s solo flute and then in the cello choir. The music seemed praise human beings as we really are, complex and imperfect, half-beast and half-angel, fatally stuck in our imperfection and our aspirations. Dostoevsky argued that idealizing ourselves by denying our bestial dimensions serves only to “strain” our fragile psyches (nadryv). He urged us to accept our ugliness as our fate and harmonize it with our yearning for beauty by giving up on self-idolatry and joining our neighbors and friends in a collective work of creating life and creating art. The BSO’s unique sound, so powerfully beautiful last night, embodied just such a vision of collective achievement. May they tour Europe safely and win many more hearts.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.