Violinist Skride impressive in BSO debut; mixed results for conductor Nelsons
Two Latvian musicians–one much talked about in these parts, the other less so–made their debuts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night, and it was the less-heralded of the two who made the stronger impression.
The term “long-awaited” doesn’t do justice to the debut of conductor Andris Nelsons, who was already long awaited last January when he canceled his scheduled BSO subscription series debut and became a new father instead. In a season when guest conductors are being handicapped like horses at the track, the widely-praised Nelsons, conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, looked like a sure bet to win, place, or show.
But in the end, the night belonged to Nelsons’s compatriot, violinist Baiba Skride, whose eloquent, riveting performance of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 will not soon be forgotten.
Composed for the legendary violinist David Oistrakh, the Shostakovich work calls for the soloist to play almost continuously for four substantial movements plus a long solo cadenza (almost a fifth movement in itself), and to lead the performance, not by playing louder and faster than anybody else, but by sheer force of personality, expressed through deceptively simple melodies, often played extremely softly. Skride met that standard, and then some.
In the concerto’s somewhat creepy opening Nocturne, Skride dared to make her first entrance as if under a tonal vow of poverty, playing long notes pianissimo and without a trace of vibrato. Her sound later grew in volume and vitality, but only a little; it carried clearly over an orchestral texture, expertly managed by Nelsons, consisting of vanishing string tone, an occasional uncanny gleam of woodwinds, and the tinkle of a celesta wrapping its icy fingers around the violin melody.
The Scherzo lifted listeners out of their seats in a tour de force of lightness, energy, and agility, with the solo violinist always laser-clear, articulate, and firing off her complex figuration with complete accuracy and assurance. At the movement’s exhilarating finish, one could feel the collective effort in the hall not to break concert decorum and applaud.
The Passacaglia felt like the big heart of the work, as warm and impassioned as the Nocturne was chilly and strange. At the outset, in a rare moment for the orchestra to shine on its own, Nelsons stated the theme imposingly in low strings and horns, then varied it in rich, shapely phrases for low brass and woodwinds. Skride’s violin sang sweetly at first, then more passionately as it engaged in duets with orchestra soloists. Nelsons sustained the movement’s long line even as it dwindled to the barest whisper, just before the solo cadenza that connected this music with the finale.
One could imagine a rougher, more abandoned performance of that cadenza than Skride gave, but hardly one more cumulatively powerful. It grew from a soft meditation on the Passacaglia theme through a series of dramatic turns and superbly-tuned double-and triple-stops to a fierce assertion of the composer’s personal four-note motive, D-S-C-H (in German notation).
Following this potent statement, the driving, brilliant finale, much the most conventional movement of the four, came off as something of a musical anticlimax. Still, there was no faulting the panache with which Skride and the orchestra dispatched it. Called back to the stage several times, the violinist obliged the audience with an encore, a tenderly inflected rendering of the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita in D minor, BWV 1004.
Nelsons’s effective partnering in the concerto raised hopes for the Tchaikovsky symphony that closed the program. Unfortunately, that performance, while competent, came off as rather studied and micromanaged bar by bar, rather than riding the sweep of Tchaikovsky’s volatile emotions.
The conductor’s exaggerated fluctuations of tempo, meant to be expressive, felt instead like frustrating starts and stops. Much of the time, the orchestra seemed to be playing as if trying to discern the conductor’s whims rather than abandoning itself to the music. And a Tchaikovsky waltz without charm is truly a day without sunshine.
Balances were sometimes off, usually to the disadvantage of the woodwinds, as in the clarinet’s nearly inaudible solo to open the piece. In the finale, however, orchestra and conductor at last surrendered to the music’s animal spirits and powered out a brilliant, effective performance, as these players know well how to do.
For Baiba Skride, this concert marked a distinguished debut. For Andris Nelsons, the evening’s two performances were like night and day—and Shostakovich’s Nocturne may have been Nelsons’s high noon.
The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday. bso.org; 888-266-1200.
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