Nelsons, BSO scale the bleak heights of Shostakovich’s Eighth

March 25, 2016 at 3:53 pm

By David Wright

Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 Thursday night.

Mountain ranges have their hidden peaks, and a towering one rose above the familiar skyline of Shostakovich’s symphonies Thursday night in Symphony Hall.

The Russian composer’s Eighth Symphony may not have the razzle-dazzle of his Fifth or the gripping real-life immediacy of his Seventh (“Leningrad”), but in the hands of Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra it revealed a spiritual depth and compositional mastery undreamed of in those more often-heard works. 

Unfolding in a piano or pianissimo dynamic for much of its hour-plus length, Shostakovich’s wartime meditation demanded, and got, the utmost in attention and concentration from the conductor, the players, and the rapt audience.

Sensing the magnitude of the experience, some listeners could not resist applauding at the quiet close of the vast opening Adagio, and again after the scherzo-like second movement.  (The subsequent movements were connected to each other, forestalling any further interruptions.)

Composed during the summer of 1943, mostly in a country retreat far from the front, the Eighth Symphony’s five movements do contain echoes of war, especially in the two brief scherzos and the shockingly violent development section of the first movement.

But the work’s lasting impression Thursday night was of a composer contemplating humanity’s darkest impulses and his own feelings of pity and loss, turning and looking at them from all angles through the changing shapes of his themes and innumerable felicities of orchestral scoring.

Crouching forward as if to merge himself with the orchestra, Nelsons held the symphony’s melodic lines taut through page after page of the Adagio, and did likewise in the lamenting Largo of the fourth movement. 

Richly expressive solos by English horn player Robert Sheena, clarinetist William R. Hudgins, and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, among many others, had the effect of personalizing the music, establishing a direct composer-to-listener connection over and above the score’s philosophical musings. 

Between the two slow movements, fraternal-twin scherzos popped up, one a fast yet plodding march banging out its four-to-a-bar beat, the other a Guernica-like scene of tortured shrieks over a harsh, driving ostinato figure that infested every section of the orchestra in turn. 

Here it was not so much solos as Shostakovich’s mixing of bright instrumental colors, topped by two fierce piccolos, that produced the bitterly satirical effect.  But the composer could also turn around and, say, give those same piccolos a dreamy legato line later in the movement. The BSO players rose to every demand.

The work came face-to-face with loss in the Largo, the violins intertwining high above the slow, repeating bass line like the souls of the departed in the air over a war-ravaged landscape.  Nelsons’ management of this movement’s long, long final decrescendo while maintaining orchestral blend and balance was extraordinary.

The symphony’s finale is not conventionally triumphant, or even comforting, but rather a relaxation of tension, a quiet but determined return to life that builds to a brief forte affirmation before dwindling to a lonely violin solo amid soft murmurs, and then silence.  Under Nelsons’ watchful eye, the players brought this elusive masterpiece to a still-questioning yet somehow satisfying conclusion.

Shostakovich’s symphony was partnered on this program by the U.S. premiere of another substantial work by a (formerly) Soviet composer, Giya Kancheli’s Dixi for chorus and orchestra, composed in 2009 as part of a project linking new compositions with Beethoven’s symphonies.

The Georgian composer was assigned Beethoven’s Ninth, and so composed a choral work with a message—not Beethoven’s eager embrace of all humanity, but a reminder of eternal verities, as embodied in the common Latin phrases one still encounters in church or in daily life.

Kancheli set a seemingly-random selection of those phrases to music of such extreme contrasts that at first one imagined hearing a sort of demented Mass, in the anarchic spirit of the composer’s friend and colleague Alfred Schnittke. 

But the opening section of soft and euphonious women’s voices interrupted by loud orchestral outbursts eventually relaxed into a more varied texture, with the mixed chorus sounding chant-like one moment and lushly Romantic the next, and the harmonic language shifting from simple triads to biting dissonance and back again. 

After the work’s assertive—one might say Beethovenian—close on the line “Super omnia veritas” (Truth conquers all), the audience acknowledged the substance of the work and the committed, colorful performance by calling Nelsons and guest chorus conductor Betsy Burleigh back to the stage twice for bows.

Rachmaninoff’s brilliant, witty Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with pianist Nikolai Lugansky as soloist, might have worked well as a refreshing sorbet between two substantial courses, but on Thursday it tasted flat, owing to the pianist’s wooden playing and an apparently underrehearsed orchestra.  But if this was the price of the excellent Kancheli and the extraordinary Shostakovich performances, so be it.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m.; (617) 266-1200.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Nelsons, BSO scale the bleak heights of Shostakovich’s Eighth”

  1. Posted Mar 26, 2016 at 2:45 pm by nimitta

    Great review! Regarding the Rachmaninoff, though, there was nothing flat or wooden at all about Friday afternoon’s performance – it was scintillating, effervescent, and thrilling entertainment. Lugansky’s technical mastery was phenomenal, but the emotional depth of feeling he brought to the slow variations, particularly the well-known 18th, was quite special. This was Romantic pianism of the highest order, and the accompaniment by Nelsons and the band matched the soloist beautifully. I wouldn’t be surprised if Saturday night’s Rhapsody is even better.

  2. Posted Apr 03, 2016 at 5:35 pm by Gary E

    I agree with nimitta – the Rachmaninoff is becoming a bit of a warhorse, but I found Lugansky “scintillating, effervescent, and thrilling” as well. And the BSO didn’t seem under-rehearsed at all – in fact they seemed to be on their toes, and enthralled with the pianist. (This was on Sat night)

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