Nelsons, BSO and soloists explore last things with dark-hued Shostakovich

February 2, 2018 at 11:20 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 was performed by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 was performed by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall.

In January of 1969, Dmitri Shostakovich appeared to be in his final days. He had never fully healed from a devastating heart attack years earlier; barely able to walk, he had begun to see symptoms of polio and smoking-related cancers that would eventually claim his life.

Death was on his mind, and he began working on a symphony that dealt with the theme, drawing upon the poetry of Rilke, Garcia Lorca, Küchelbecker, and Apollinaire.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 would come to stand as one of the most unusual of his fifteen works in the genre. Spanning fifty minutes in length, the symphony unfolds over eleven movements that are, in essence, orchestral songs for baritone and soprano. Shostakovich also stripped the instrumentation of much of his usual sonorities and only strings and percussion provide the symphony’s cold, bristly sound world.

The Fourteenth Symphony is the latest installment in the multi-season survey of the composer’s symphonies by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Thursday night at Symphony Hall, Nelsons’ bold and eerily beautiful performance of the work left an indelible impression—of life surging in one last grand effort in the face of death. 

Much of the poetry Shostakovich has set deals with untimely or unjust death, with the protagonists raging against the coming darkness. Yet Shostakovich’s music fitfully peeks out of the gloom like sunshine through clouds. At the conclusion of “O Delvig, Delvig!,” cellos and basses sound with sudden bright and rosy tone to capture a brief, life-affirming moment.

Other passages are gritty and sarcastic. In “Malagueña,” the strings dig in with fire and intensity. And in “On the alert,” a movement that deals with the coming death of a young soldier, xylophone and drums provide martial precision. The BSO strings and percussion played these passages of the score with gripping intensity.

The singers fully captured the twisted darkness of Shostakovich’s music Thursday night. Soprano Kristine Opolais sang with a haunting tone that brought just the right touch of warmth to her featured songs. Her voice is light, and her high notes didn’t always gleam, as they should have. But her middle and lower registers sounded with a cold radiance in “Loreley,” a troubling tale about the suicide of a young woman. In the ensuing movement, Opolais’s singing turned anguished as she mused upon the lilies that grow on the character’s grave.

Bryn Terfel was scheduled to perform in this week’s concerts, but had to withdraw due to vocal fatigue. In his stead stood Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk.

The singer possesses a strong, cavernous voice, and he projected Shostakovich’s chant-like writing with power and focus. Tsymbalyuk found the spare loneliness of “At the Santé Jail,” a prisoner’s song of isolation. In the opening “De Profundis,” his singing spun a bleak picture of empty graveyards.

Shostakovich’s music bears a Mahlerian weight and seriousness. Indeed, bristly octaves and stabbing dissonances are the frames through which the composer paints his portrait of death. Nelsons led an incisive reading that captured the poetic depths of this powerful and moving score.

Ailing from a cold, Nelsons declined to take the podium for Mozart’s Gran Partita, K. 361, which made up the first half of the program. The BSO winds, however, did a superb job on their own, playing with a graceful musicality well suited to Mozart’s lyrical style.

Lines in the outer movements bounded with direction and momentum, the players shaping their phrases with subtle dynamics. Crescendos swelled from the bottom up, and the ensemble sounded with warmth and vitality. 

Yet the musicians also cast the Gran Partita in bold colors. The first Minuet sounded with courtly air, and the second, with its Ländler feel, glowed with a rustic verve. In the famous Adagio, oboist John Ferrillo traded a sweet-toned phrase with clarinetist William R. Hudgins, the melodic line flowering like an aria. The theme and variations flowed in singing arcs, and the final movement bounced with roiling energy to bring the piece to a vibrant conclusion.

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

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