Nelsons, BSO resume Shostakovich cycle with a powerful rarity

September 29, 2017 at 10:55 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Paul Lewis performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Michael Blanchard

Paul Lewis performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Michael Blanchard

Andris Nelsons’ exploration of Shostakovich symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been a defining feature of his tenure as music director. When he first arrived three seasons ago, he laid out a plan to perform and record the composer’s works that were written while Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union. The BSO’s subsequent live recordings of the Fifth through Tenth Symphonies, released on the Deutsche Grammophon label, made for rewarding listening and won back-to-back Grammy Awards. With Nelsons contract extended through the 2021-2022 season, there is now ample time to explore more of the composer’s works.

This season will offer three more symphonies. The new survey made for an historic event Thursday night at Symphony Hall, where Nelsons delivered the BSO’s first ever performance of the Symphony No 11, “The Year 1905.”

This crushing and expansive work isn’t one of the composer’s more popular pieces due to its blatant Socialist Realist message and cinematic style. But the musical canvas is rife with depth and power. The four movements, played without pause, tell the story of the doomed 1905 Russian Revolution, often seen as a trial run for the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. And like other of Shostakovich’s symphonies, the Eleventh may have a double meaning. Was Shostakovich also supplying a critique of Soviet power in the wake of the Hungarian revolt of 1956? Historical evidence is contradictory, and, as always with this composer, it is left up to listeners to decide for themselves.

Nelsons has a firm command of such music, and he conjured a reading of dramatic force. Each movement spun from quotations of revolutionary songs, which would have been well known to the Soviets of the 1950s. The opening movement was bare and coolly distant as the music conjured the icy landscape of the Winter Palace Square on January 9, 1905, the day the revolution began. Bugle calls are a constant theme, and trumpeter Thomas Rolfs and French hornist James Sommerville floated haunting phrases.

In the second movement, a menacing string line wove through the orchestral texture like a thread and swelled to driving intensity. The BSO brass supplied hulking chords when called upon. Bristly fugal passages in the strings had the rough edges and agitation one might find in Bartók’s music, and the percussionists unleashed a stampede of sound in the movement’s climax.

There were some reverential moments in the hour-long work, such as the viola solos in the third movement, which was by turns dark and radiant. Another highlight came near the end of the symphony, where English hornist Robert Sheena spun a plaintive line before the winds and brass brought the piece to a brash and powerful conclusion. As with Nelsons’ reading of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony this past February, this performance stands as one of the highlights of the year.

The first half of the program was dedicated to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. The soloist was Paul Lewis, a pianist of remarkable intelligence and elegance.

His performance of the concerto abounded with lyricism. His tone had subtle weight where appropriate, and his phrasing flowed effortlessly. In the first movement he conjured warm colors from the keyboard, and phrases shimmered with hazy effects in the the music’s soft passages. Yet Lewis was capable of grand gestures of expression. The bold chords that pepper the middle of the movement gave way seamlessly to effervescent passages.

His trickling phrases of the third movement took on a Mozartean grace, which revealed an interpretation more attuned to the singing line than barnstorming technique.

The most beautiful playing came in the second movement, where the music ranged from brooding darkness to faint light. Nelsons led an accompaniment well matched to Lewis’ lyricism and finesse.

The program will be repeated 1:30 pm. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

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