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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Concert Review: Of Strings and Broken Puppets

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Andris Nelsons led the BSO at Carnegie Hall.
Photo courtesy the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra continued their three-night stand at Carnegie Hall Thursday night with a program featuring Beethoven's Violin Concerto bookended by watershed works from the pen of Dmitri Shostakovich. Mr. Nelsons' stamp on this orchestra is beginning to make itself heard: a painstaking attention to orchestral detail and an almost intimate podium style that makes himself and his baton part of the working ensemble and not merely its music director.

Mr. Nelsons opened with the Passacaglia from Act II of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. This excerpt is from the composer's 1934 opera, a blood-drenched work that so shocked Soviet dictator Josef Stalin that he attacked its creator on the front page of Pravda. It follows the second murder in the show, opening with a calamitous brass chord before delving into the obsessive, repeated rhythm that anchored firm strings and muscular brass. Under Mr. Nelsons, this was crisp and taut, announcing the story's turn from domestic drama to tragedy.

The violinist Christian Tetzlaff then joined the orchestra for the Beethoven Violin Concerto. The already immense first movement was expanded by Mr. Nelson's choice to take the Allegro ma non troppo at a comfortable walking speed, expanding the sound palette, stretching note values and testing endurance of the player and audience alike. However, this relaxed, cerebral approach paid dividends, capturing the humanist message of Beethoven's music and putting the focus on the superbly controlled wind band of the BSO.

Mr. Nelsons' relaxed approach also allowed more space for Mr. Tetzlaff's solo instrument. His first two little cadenzas were thrilling enough but the big final one (written by the soloist) was a thrilling amusement park ride through a musician's subconscious. Here, his violin veered from the main thematic ideas of the work into a lengthy discourse followed by a quick solo dance intermezzo that could have been a movement unto itself. The timpanist, tapping out the main percussion theme of the original movement guided the soloist back to the main key before Mr. Nelsons launched the ritornello with a little more force than before.

The trend toward slowness and transparency continued in the glowing second movement, where finely burnished double reeds and strings supported Mr. Tetzlaff's solo line. The final movement's dancing theme was led off by Mr. Tetzlaff, a celebration of what came before though still taken at a slower rate than normal. Following the thunderous triple ovation, the soloist returned to the now fully lit auditorium. The lights were lowered again, and Mr. Tetzlaff obliged his listeners with a thrilling and impressive encore showing his abilities to play multiple melodic lines at once.

Thrilling and impressive are adjectives that also suit Mr. Nelsons' leadership of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 in E minor, a work given a new lease on life by this bold and stirring performance. Mr. Nelsons conducted this symphony with an understanding of the tragedy, paranoia and very cautious hope in the face of overwhelming odds that fill the first two movements with such dark despair. The opening Moderato is one long exercise in waiting for the ax to fall, and the whirlwind Scherzo that followed is that ax landing with sharp, repeated and fatal blows.

The second half of the symphony opens with a long slow Adagietto culminating in the statement of Shostakovich's own "D-E flat-C-B" motto theme ("D-S-C-H" in German notation, the composer's initials.) Most listeners hear this theme first appear at the end of the movement but under Mr. Nelsons it was present much earlier, appearing in the slowly shortening ground bass (another Shostakovich passacaglia!) and becoming the driving force of the finale. That finale started slowly, and again cautiously before erupting in a manic, parodic tintinnabulation in the strings, shot through with bitterness. In the last bars, percussion and brass rose to the occasion, pounding out the motto theme to delirious and exhilarating effect.

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