Writing here recently about last season at the Boston Symphony, I had recourse more than once to the phrase “just notes going by” in response to Andris-Nelsons-led performances that I did not like (I did praise a number of performances as well). I am happy to say that I think no one would say “just notes going by” about the recent, September 28th concert which opened the orchestra’s subscription series for 2017-2018. First, Nelsons and the orchestra and soloist Paul Lewis presented a definite view of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G-major, Opus 58; they had something to say with it. And the large Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”) which followed, seemed to come into its own and express itself as fully as one could imagine.
The Beethoven Concerto is often, successfully and aptly, rendered as lyrical, meditative, sometimes tender, sometimes playful, with here and there a moment of anxiety or suspense. This was not Lewis and Nelsons’s approach. They were, together, consistently forthright and bold, proceeding at a steady, strong pace, everything played pretty much mezzo forte It was as if the music were putting up a constant guard against some incursion of non-being or the night. There was piano/orchestra dialogue. But, in an interesting way, all musical utterance seemed to come from the same place. One felt that the earth, or some earth spirit, simply wanted to sing out in bold phrases, now in the piano, now in the voice of a horn, now an oboe, now massed strings, and so on, all elaborating on Beethoven’s basic opening motifs for each movement.
And here emerges the point of the evening’s programming. Nelsons, and seemingly Lewis with him, found in the Beethoven Concerto a precursor of Shostakovich. The Symphony No. 11 is offered as a depiction of the 1905 uprising against the Tsar and its brutal suppression. And indeed the second movement with its supercharged timpani and cymbals and pounding bass drum renders violent attack, with a sense of apocalypse, as vividly as certain episodes in Eisenstein films. And Shostakovich’s use of traditional songs throughout the symphony conveys mourning and lamentation, for the dead and for the lost cause. But in the main one does not follow a dramatic narrative in this piece. It is, in a sense, all the same. As so often in the Shostakovich symphonies, one feels, start to finish, the earth, or cosmos, or human cosmos, or the very spirit of humanity, wanting to sing out in testimony to suffering and in lamentation, and occasionally in a desperate grasping for joy. The Symphony No. 11 begins with bold phrases leaping out from the lower strings, suggesting a stirring of the earth, or of the earth-spirit. And this stirring soon issues in eloquent, sometimes lively, sometimes melancholy utterance from—on this occasion—the orchestra’s wonderful principals: flute, Elizabeth Rowe; oboe, John Ferillo; clarinet, William Hudgins; horn, James Somerville; trumpet (muted but strong), Thomas Rolfs; and others. Celesta, harps, xylophone, chimes, and tam-tam add to the color of the piece, without overcoming the basic somberness. Late in the piece the whole viola section is featured alone and songfully. The concluding moments are dominated by an intensely melancholy English horn solo,, here very movingly played by Robert Sheena. Nelsons and the musicians showed themselves fully committed to bringing this music to life in all its color and eloquence, anxiety and sadness, and in its insistence on asserting music as, if not a guard against the incursion of non-being, a refusal of the suppression of memory and testimony.
A week later, October 5th, and things were still humming. Nelsons opened this concert with Moler, a short piece from 2012 by Arlene Sierra, Miami-born, now based in London. Sierra says the piece is meant to suggest the grinding of teeth in one’s sleep. But the effect was more one of getting a musical engine going—a steady busy rhythm—and then playing with sounds, such as the similarity, or coincidence, of the sounds of quite different instruments when played in a certain way, in a certain register. Much crossing and re-crossing of such here.
Next came the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with soloist Gil Shaham. Last April Nelsons led, with soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter, a fairly listless account of the piece. Nothing listless on this occasion. Shaham played with warmth, passion, and virtuosity; and Nelsons seemed much more engaged with the piece, phrase by phrase and in the shaping of the whole, than last April. After a long ovation at the end (there was even a sizable ovation after the heroic journey of the first movement), the masterful Shaham offered an upbeat Bach encore which nevertheless calmed the waters. The concert concluded with Rachmaninoff’s large Symphony No. 2 in E-minor. The orchestra, as an ensemble and in the numerous solos, played very beautifully this aural tapestry of typical Rachmaninoff plangent melodies overlaying and woven in and out of one another. Nelsons would do well, though, to get the orchestra to play more quietly at times. This was called for in the Tchaikovsky and the Rachmaninoff as well—more shading, more standing back at times.