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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Concert Review: A Certain Sense of Drama

Andris Nelsons and the BSO take Leningrad.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Andris Nelsons at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Photo by Marco Borggreve © 2016 Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Andris Nelsons is in his third year at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the fiery Latvian conductor has been nothing but good for this august ensemble. On Tuesday night, Mr. Nelsons led the first of three Carnegie Hall concerts this week. He opened his New York run with an ambitious pairing: a new concerto by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina and the longest symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich: the Seventh.

Ms. Gubaidulina's work is a Triple Concerto in one movement, with solo parts for violin, cello and bayan, a Ukrainian variant on the accordion. The bayan has differently shaped reeds than the Western European instrument, and a two push-button controllers instead of a keyboard. It produces a fat, reedy sound that proved effective when contrasting with the cello and violin. Violinist Baiba Skride traded keening phrases with cellist Harriet Krijgh, answered by accordionist Elsbeth Moser, her instrument amplified to be heard against the orchestra.

The composer was content to let each instrument make its own statement in terms of texture, answered by different swatches of sound from the orchestra. Strings shimmied. The solo tuba growled like a great dragon from a certain German music drama. And the bayan offered surging chords, played with firm pressure on the buttons and a great gulp of air from the bellows. This led to harmonics from the violin and a scraped rhythm on the cello, echoed by the orchestra in a spare, web-like construction of sound without much in the way of rhythm or form. Audience applause was polite, turning enthusiastic when Ms. Gubaidulina came forward to take a bow.

By contrast Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 is all about form, although the extended sonata structure of the first movement is interrupted for the most famous sequence: twelve repetitions of a cheerful little operetta theme that grow louder and more heavily orchestrated with each go-round. Debate rages to this day as to its meaning. Is this a portrait of the German Wehrmacht advancing on the city of Leningrad (where Shostakovich and millions of his fellow citizens braced for the oncoming siege of the city?) Or is it a more subtle political statement, evoking the rise of terror and the purge of artists under Stalin's boot.?

Whichever dictator the composer had in mind, this was a performance to be reckoned with. Mr. Nelsons used his long experience as an opera conductor to bring a sense of genuine terror and tension to the opening bars, an icy string melody that yielded to questing solos in the woodwinds. And then the snare started its rataplan rhythm, with that banal little theme making the first of its twelve appearances. These had a genuine sense of swinging momentum, given just enough rhythmic variation by Mr. Nelsons to keep the ear interested. At its climax, the last repetition was deafening and unbearable in its power--as it should be.

This was not the end, however. Mr. Nelsons kept focus during the extended elegy passage that ends this 30-minute first movement, a mournful theme in bassoons that groans with the weight of an oppressed people. The next movement was a warm, Mahlerian dance movement, allowing the orchestra to cease its military maneuvers and simply play from the heart. The slow movement was deceptive in its calm, before becoming a powerful elegy, either for the thousands slaughtered and starved by the Nazis or the victims of Stalin's brutal tactics. Mr. Nelsons and his forces built to a huge and raging climax in the two choirs of heavy brass on either side of the stage.

Shostakovich was always ambiguous about the meaning of his finales, and some question exists as to whether the closing C Major coda of the Seventh represent true triumph or a bitter false dawn. Shostakovich even quotes that great master of Austrian symphony Anton Bruckner here, with a massive brass chorale drawn from that composer's Sixth Symphony. In Mr. Nelsons' skilled hands, it managed to be both, with a subtle but audible current of unease underneath the booming pomposity of horns and trombones. 

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