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The major success of Andris Nelsons’ still brief career as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director must be his advocacy of the orchestral music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Certainly no BSO conductor since the legendary Serge Koussevitzky back in the 1940s has been such a champion of the Russian composer.
Deutsche Grammophon has just released its fourth CD set of Andris Nelsons and the BSO's live performances of Shostakovich. The last three have all won Best Orchestral Performance Grammys for 2016, 2017 and 2019. (Even in 2018, a year without a Nelsons recording, the Grammy went to a Shostakovich symphony — the judges must love him.) The new release is a 2-CD set consisting of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, incidental music for a production of “King Lear,” and the late, brief “Festive Overture” (1954, Opus 96).
What is it about Shostakovich that appeals to contemporary audiences (or to Grammy judges)?
His symphonies are long, and often heavy, forced and relentless. They’ve obviously been influenced by Mahler, especially Mahler’s personal torment. Yet on the whole they don’t have Mahler’s uncanny melodic or orchestral ear, and they’re more public than personal in their display of anguish. A contemporary listener maybe feels most in tune with his biting and bitter satiric side. Perhaps we live in a time when, as the Roman historian Tacitus put it, it is difficult not to write satire.
The overall title of the BSO's Shostakovich series is “Under Stalin’s Shadow.” The composer, clearly the preeminent Soviet composer, was constantly dodging bullets (not all of them merely figurative). His music was complicated, sophisticated, too intellectually demanding for what Stalin wanted “the people” to hear. Shostakovich mysteriously withdrew his Fourth Symphony (which is on Nelsons’ previous BSO set) just before its first performance, after his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” was attacked in an anonymous editorial (evidently by Stalin) and remained unperformed for a quarter of a century. In the liner notes to the new recording, Nelsons says that the composer, fearing imminent arrest, “had his suitcase packed and was prepared to go at any time. If he had been less intelligent or more arrogant, he might not have survived.”
Nelsons led the Symphony No. 4 last year both at Symphony Hall, where it was recorded, and on the BSO’s European tour. The BSO brasses have been playing extremely well for him. But compared to the devastating performance Vladimir Jurowski conducted with the BSO in 2012, Nelsons’ didn’t seem exploratory, surprising, or nuanced. He couldn’t seem to show us what this bewildering work was really about.
Symphony No. 6 is easier to take and surely easier to conduct. It followed the enormous success (thanks largely to Leonard Bernstein) of Shostakovich’s most popular symphony, the Fifth. It’s oddly shaped: a 20-minute slow movement (Lento) followed by two quicksilver fast movements. He finished the first two movements in the summer of 1939, just after Germany and the Soviet Union signed what turned out to be an empty “non-aggression” pact. He said he wanted to express “feelings of springtime, joy and youth.”
These qualities surface in the assertive Allegro and cheerier, less ambiguous and teasing Presto galloping the symphony to its triumphant conclusion. The BSO winds tremble with excitement and youthful energy. But it’s the opening slow movement that’s the real heart of this work. The plush low strings glow and Robert Sheena’s English horn is a soulful singer. Congratulations to DG for including the names of everyone in the orchestra. I have no reservations about this Sixth Symphony, though I would have liked to be around to hear any of the 24 performances Koussevitzky led between 1942 and 1944.
Symphony No. 7, the "Leningrad" — was written just after the catastrophic German siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Thousands of lives were lost — but the Russians never capitulated. This daunting hour-long work was much celebrated in its time. Arturo Toscanini performed the American premiere on the radio with his NBC Symphony Orchestra. It was an international event. I’ve heard only one live performance that blew me away: the BSO under Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, 22 years ago.
The biggest challenge of the “Leningrad” comes in the first movement. The opening themes get interrupted by what is essentially the German invasion. Over and over, for some 20 minutes, we get a march that’s a barely-hidden parody of the song “We’re Going to Maxim’s” from Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow.” What tune could be jauntier, more satirical, or more threatening? Is there a series of repetitions in all of music, including Ravel’s “Bolero,” where there’s a greater risk of mind-numbing monotony?
With Gergiev shaping the dynamics of that appalling sequence with the subtlety of a cat waiting to pounce, we were both gripped and terrified. Nelsons, like most conductors, is mostly too loud and just wears down one’s patience. The later movements express an at times sanctimonious nostalgia for a lost past, the painful progress of the resistance, and ultimate victory. In the second movement (Moderato), principal oboe John Ferrillo has a haunting solo. In the third movement (Adagio), among passages of desolate beauty, principal flute Elizabeth Rowe plays a magical recollection of that first-movement ear-worm. But all these movements go on far too long and end with pounding, headache-inducing repetition.
One of the puzzling things about Nelsons, who is Latvian, is how generic his rhythms are. Where’s the Russian inflection and lilt?
The suite from Shostakovich’s “King Lear” is a series of short military movements, fanfares and marches, alternating with more pastoral scenes — very Mahlerian. None of it cuts deep enough to be tragic. His six-minute, bursting-at-the-seams “Festive Overture” is both zippy and bloated. It evidently took Shostakovich only a few hours to write. Appropriately, it’s been played more than twice as many times by the Boston Pops (55 times) than by the BSO (22 times).
The Sixth Symphony is the gem in this set, the worthy rarity that really deserves to be heard more.
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