Violinist Skride impressive in BSO debut; mixed results for conductor Nelsons

February 1, 2013 at 1:12 pm

By David Wright

Baibe Skride made her BSO debut Thursday night in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with Andris Nelsons conducting. Photo: Stu Rosner

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.

Posted in Performances


5 Responses to “Violinist Skride impressive in BSO debut; mixed results for conductor Nelsons”

  1. Posted Feb 01, 2013 at 6:51 pm by Tim

    Andris has no problem conducting the Tchaikovsky back in his home in Birmingham

    Perhaps the problems with the symphony were due to the Hall which is not of the standard of the Birmingham Symphony Hall or the Orchestra not being up to the standard of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

  2. Posted Feb 01, 2013 at 7:30 pm by Anna Shlimovich

    Thank you again for revealing the encore name – Sarabande from Bach’s Partita in D minor, BWV 1004.
    Ms. Baiba Skride was exceptional indeed, and the whole concerto sounded so different from Victoria Mullova’s interpretation (incidentally, both ladies were born in USSR, but not the composer!).
    I also found this curious notation of Shostakovich’s name in the programme notes, but I doubt it was intentional on his part – Russians use French system for notes and harmonies – si bemol, la minor, etc, meaning it is unlikely that Shostakovich used A-G system. Besides, his last name in French, a language used by the educated elite of the time and still used in Soviet passports 20 years ago, is spelled as Chostakovitch, thus ruining the nice theory of the secret allusion to his name :)
    Anyway, thanks again for the great review.

  3. Posted Feb 02, 2013 at 7:16 am by Michael

    I respectfully disagree with the reviewer on his take of Nelsons’ Tchaikovsky. I thought the reading was spacious and positively Wagnerian in scope and texture, full of details and layered nuances. It was so refreshing to hear Tchaikovsky in such new light and organically conveyed, yet heartfelt. Sure if one is used to Warhorse-mode Tchaikovsky, this is a very different animal. I for one thought Nelsons made Tchaikovsky Fifth sounded much greater than how this music is usually being presented. Coupled with the lyrical and soul searing Shostakovich by B. Skride, the concert was an absolute triumph.

  4. Posted Feb 02, 2013 at 9:09 am by J. M. Chen Levinson

    Congratulations to David Wright to capturing the spirit of this extraordinary Shostakovich concerto performance so well. I would only have added that the “magic” of this performance surely resulted in significant part from the fact that Skride and Nelsons have performed the concerto together so often in the past, and that Nelsons’partnerning with the orchestra was sublime.

    But Wright’s description of the Tchaikovsky made me wonder if we were at the same concert. If Mr. Wright attended concerts regularly during past months, he surely would have noticed the inconsistency of orchestral playing, and the substandard, often inattentive playing in the first violin section.

    By contrast, what we had in the Nelsons Tchaikovsky was a performance nothing less than Wagnerian in scope and texture, totally re-invented for many of us, spacious, organic and full of details normally unnoticed. Nelsons’ animated style was not just for show but produced results. It was astonishing to see the normally stoic upper strings actually engaged in bodily velocity while phrasing…well, like the Berlin Philharmonic! I have not heard a Tchaikovsky 5th like that before in my life.

    I would challenge Mr. Wright – clearly a sensitive ear – to listen to a broadcast performance of Nelsons’ Tchaikovsky, and then
    see if his observations are still in tact.

    James M. Chen Levinson

  5. Posted Feb 04, 2013 at 2:50 pm by Fred

    I attended the Saturday evening concert. I found myself able to live with the Shostakovich and Ms Skraide acquitted herself well. The concerto was written with Oistrakh in mind and I feel that it is a masculine piece, catering to unique technical and sound abilities of the great violinist.

    The Tchaikovsky, though fulfilling itself as a potboiler in Nelsons hands was annoyingly episodic, losing the clarity of line and proportion. I pulled out my LP of Rodzinski conducting the RPO just to hear if I was imagining things and sure enough, Rodzinski’s take is cohesive, free from mannerisms and pure in spirit, in short true to the music.

    I had this feeling throughout the concert that Nelsons was tryiing very, very hard to make his mark in Boston and win over the concertgoing population and orchestra. make no mistake, he wants the BSO bad.