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Nelsons Again Shows Shostakovich Mastery

The Boston Musical Intelligencer

November 9, 2018

Nelsons Again Shows Shostakovich Mastery

by Jeffrey Gantz

A younger Shostakovich

This weekend’s program from the BSO focuses on the music of northern Europe. The orchestra is within the means of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Latvia — the house of its music director, Andris Nelsons — with two new works. Final month it was Maija Einfelde’s Lux aeterna. The present program begins with Andris Dzenītis’s Māra and continues with Shostakovich’s First Symphony, a part of Nelsons’s ongoing challenge to carry out (and document, for Deutsche Grammophon) all 15 of Shostakovich’s symphonies with the BSO. After intermission, we get a BSO rarity, the second act of Nutcracker. On paper, not probably the most prepossessing line-up: a world premiere (who is aware of?), a primary symphony (how good can it’s?), and half of a syrupy ballet for teenagers that we’ve all heard one million occasions. However Thursday the world premiere was welcome, and the primary symphony was excellent certainly. And the ballet music, if not very balletic, was not within the least syrupy.

Dzenītis was born in Riga in 1978; Māra was commissioned collectively by the BSO and its companion the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the place Nelsons can also be music director. Devoted to Nelsons, it premiered in Leipzig final month. Thursday’s efficiency constituted the American premiere.

Dzenītis describes the Latvian goddess Māra as certainly one of God’s “two manifestations in the worldly realm.” She’s “the patroness of the entire physical, visible, audible, tangible world, and at the same time its embodiment. We encounter her in every step we take, whenever we see, hear, smell, touch, or feel. She is in charge of birth and death, of the matter and substance of the world, space, both the tangible and the evanescent. Air and water. Dewy meadows and mold. A mystery. The energy that comes into being and leads to its own destruction. The beginning and the end.”

That’s quite a bit to convey in 20 minutes — Stravinsky wanted 30 simply to jump-start Russia’s spring. Dzenītis’s orchestra requires bass clarinet and bass trombone amongst different devices, and percussion to incorporate tam-tam, crotales, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, temple blocks, tom-toms, and whip.

It begins with an eruption that jogged my memory of the “Fontana del Tritone” part of Respighi’s Fontane di Roma. Fragments of melody recommend cosmic fragments, or, as in Sacre, the cracking open of the earth. Ghostly trumpets result in wind and string ostinatos; midway via the feel thickens, and so do the rhythms. A touch of the plainsong “Dies irae” precedes a ramping up of depth and a climax with brass fanfares after which a timpani crescendo. But Māra’s ultimate incarnation is her most sudden: a two-minute bass-clarinet solo (right here performed by the BSO’s impeccable Craig Nordstrom) that meditates on, and maybe mediates, the chaos that has gone earlier than.

In his program notice, Dzenītis speaks of tracing “different meanders and line segments characteristic of Māra . . . sometimes practically visible in the score, just like the signs that have adorned the Latvian daily life since ancient times.” These meanders and line segments may nicely be extra seen within the rating than they appeared in efficiency. Dzenītis concludes that Fontana conveys “the musical encoding of my personal understanding of what it means to be Latvian.” I don’t know that after listening to Māra I’m any the wiser as to what it means to be Latvian. Nevertheless it’s a mystical, mystifying piece I’d like to listen to once more.   

Provided that Shostakovich accomplished his First Symphony in 1925, as a Leningrad Conservatory commencement train, when he was simply 19, one might be tempted to write down it off as an excellent scholar work. But it’s hardly much less mature than the Symphony in C that Bizet wrote at age 17, or the Classical Symphony that Prokofiev accomplished at age 26. At 30-plus minutes, the piece, which premiered with the Leningrad Philharmonic beneath Nikolai Malko in 1926, is much less formidable than epics just like the composer’s Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth, and its textures are extra clear. However Shostakovich’s fingerprints are all over the place: the quirky, ambivalent foremost themes, the bittersweet lyricism of the second themes, the militant marches, the funeral marches, the helter-skelter operating for canopy. There’s his typical preponderance of excessive (violin and flute particularly) and low, as if the center floor have been off-limits. On this symphony there’s additionally a preponderance of piano, reminding us that at this level in his younger life Shostakovich was incomes cash by accompanying silent movies at Leningrad’s Piccadilly Cinema (now the Aurora).

The opening “Allegretto — Allegro non troppo” begins with a jittery interchange amongst muted trumpet, clarinet, and bassoon; you may nicely envision Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, with which Shostakovich was, in fact, properly acquainted. Are we people greater than marionettes, he appears to be asking. The second topic, a waltz for top flute, clarinet, and, later, violins, appears to reply sure, however you may also hear Petrouchka once more, the Moor’s try and waltz with the Ballerina. The orchestra has been discreet up thus far, nevertheless it busts out within the motion’s third main part, a type of cacophonous Shostakovich marches that tightropes between proletarian revolution and totalitarian conformity. The waltz, barely audible within the improvement, makes its presence felt within the recapitulation, turning satirical within the course of, however the march has the final phrase earlier than the motion peters out, as if even the Bolshevik Revolution have been not more than a ghost.

The First is a four-movement symphony with the scherzo positioned second and the sluggish motion third. Scherzos, everyone knows, ought to be in some type of triple meter, however Shostakovich turns this one right into a duple-meter galop, with outstanding piano, as if the one applicable response to the turmoil of the opening motion have been to take refuge within the ballet. And although we do get triple time within the second topic, Shostakovich makes it sound like a cross between a lullaby (echoes of Stravinsky’s Firebird) and a funeral march (echoes of the plainsong “Dies irae”). The “Lento — Largo” sluggish motion begins with a melancholy oboe melody, undermined by uneasy string harmonies, that’s interrupted by the sort of militant trumpet determine that opens Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. As soon as the double basses are contaminated with that dotted rhythm and it permeates the second topic, you already know the motion is doomed, even because it continues to cite from Wagner’s Siegfried.

The finale, introduced (or annunciated) by a thunderous snare-drum roll, is one other of Shostakovich’s burlesques, humanity on the run from Stalin/God/life. The menacing militant motif from the sluggish motion returns, however now it’s inverted, and whacked out on the timpani, as if the composer had hit the reset button on human existence. What’s left is a dialogue between two hopeful themes, the Lento from the sluggish motion and the finale’s sluggish second topic (with the piano turning virtually Rachmaninovian). All of it builds to a strong, unconvincing climax that by no means fairly sheds its minor-key undertones.

The BSO has programmed Shostakovich’s First some dozen occasions, so it hasn’t precisely been uncared for, however the orchestra hasn’t finished it in Symphony Corridor since 2004 (Ingo Metzmacher), and the final BSO music director to conduct it was Erich Leinsdorf, again within the 1960s. One has to wonder if, with out the Deutsche Grammophon recording contract, we might be getting all fifteen Shostakovich symphonies. A few of these nonetheless to return, like Nos. 2 (To October) and three (The First of Might), with their Revolution-inspired choruses, might check BSO audiences. However everybody can be pleased about No. 1.

Notably in Nelsons’s interpretation, which can deserve a spot in any CD assortment as soon as the recording is launched. The chamber-like textures name for top-shelf soloists, and Thursday the BSO delivered, beginning with Thomas Rolfs’s muted trumpet. What began as atmospheric beneath Nelsons shortly turned uneasy after which nightmarish because the march kicked in and marionette Petrouchka was launched to Communism. We obtained a respite, within the waltz, from Elizabeth Rowe’s flute and William Hudgins’s clarinet earlier than the march, extra raucous than ever, began up once more, and when the waltz returned within the recapitulation, it had a circusy really feel, as if grace had been co-opted. You can virtually see Petrouchka, the Ballerina, and Moor wanting about apprehensively because the motion ended.

Within the Allegro second motion, with Vytas J. Baksys’s careering piano, turned as a lot movie-cop chase as ballet galop — maybe Shostakovich’s anticipation of Russian residents on the run from Stalin’s secret police, a daily function of his future symphonies. The second topic went on the similar tempo however conveyed the Japanese taste of Firebird; Nelsons turned the climax right into a “Dies irae” funeral orgy, one thing I’m unsure Shostakovich might have anticipated however which I feel he would have favored. The opening to the “Lento — Largo” can sound bitter if the oboist isn’t sweetly pungent; John Ferrillo had no drawback, after which within the Largo part he created a special, extra somber temper. The irruptions of army rhythm quickly dominated the motion, regardless of winsome solos from Rolfs and first affiliate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova; all of it ended with the orchestra striving for transcendence. No luck there, after which it was again on the run for the finale. Extra craving from solo violin and trumpets led to an anguished climax, and when that minimize out abruptly, Timothy Genis delivered a trinity of timpani annunciations, observing scrupulously (virtually too scrupulously) Shostakovich’s distinctions: the primary beginning fff and diminishing to ppp, the second beginning ff and diminishing to ppp, the third pp all through. Blaise Déjardin’s solo cello responded with a sober Magnificat; silvery trumpets took up the motion’s second theme, and Nelsons, following Shostakovich’s “Piú mosso” and the “Presto” markings to the letter, gave us the composer’s template for “upbeat” endings that appear extra like hole victories. There are greater first symphonies — Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler — however few higher.    

As for the Nutcracker, over the previous 30 years Boston Ballet — principally underneath the superb Jonathan McPhee — has introduced some 40 performances a season, so it’s hardly shocking that the BSO hasn’t given a lot consideration to Tchaikovsky’s rating. Nonetheless, simply eight conductors (considered one of them Danny Kaye) are on document as having executed the Suite. Seiji Ozawa led the entire ballet (recorded by Deutsche Grammophon) in 1990 and once more in 1996. Act two has been provided twice at Tanglewood however not at Symphony Corridor.

It’s a modest historical past for such a superlative composition. The Nutcracker has been credited, rightly, as having modified the face of ballet in America (Boston Ballet would hardly be the identical with out it), however musicologists are likely to attribute its reputation to vacation sentiment. The rating was, actually, certainly one of Tchaikovsky’s final, having premiered in St. Petersburg in December 1892, lower than a yr earlier than his dying. He wasn’t altogether passionate about Petipa’s state of affairs (which eviscerates the story supply, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 novella), however what he produced in the long run is hardly inferior to his remaining work, the Pathétique. (There are, in fact, musicologists who short-shrift the Pathétique and every part else Tchaikovsky composed, however that’s an entire totally different dialog.)

It’d seem that the story of The Nutcracker unfolds in Act One, as Clara takes the ugly Nutcracker to her coronary heart and he in turns protects her dolls from the Mouse King, and that act two is nothing however divertissements. Truly, Act Two sees Clara’s dolls come to life, and although on one degree the music represents gustatory delights (chocolate, espresso, tea), on one other it provides Clara a style of grownup relationships, ending up with the very grownup grand pas de deux between the Nutcracker and the Sugar Plum Fairy. And Tchaikovsky’s rating, regardless of how widespread it’s with youngsters, is grownup as nicely.

Nonetheless, Nelsons’s interpretation Thursday took some getting used to. At 42 minutes, it was extra expansive than Gergiev’s Mariinsky recording and according to the mainstream timings of Ozawa, Bonynge, Previn, and Temirkanov. So it shouldn’t have sounded too quick, however to my ears, conditioned by almost 30 years of listening to McPhee, it did. It was cogent, it had sweep, it had nuances — however they weren’t dance nuances, and I don’t know that this was a studying any ballet firm might have danced to.

I definitely missed the loving consideration to element that Nelsons had made so evident within the Shostakovich. The opening Kingdom of Sweets quantity was quickish and string-heavy, the winds didn’t have a lot emotional weight (that was an issue all through), and the trumpets’ recall of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony barely registered. It wasn’t saccharine (which occurs lots), nevertheless it wasn’t luxurious, both. And following the arrival of Clara and the Nutcracker, there was no drama in Nutcracker’s retelling of the battle with the mice.

Chocolate (Spanish) suffered from underpowered castanets; Espresso (Arabian) was neither sinuous nor wealthy. Tea (Chinese language) truly lumbered a bit. The Trepak (Russian) had a great power and vibrant, crisp sound; Marzipan (Mirlitons) might have had extra power, Mom Ginger extra humor. The Waltz of the Flowers was very compact, with a sleek lilt within the French horns, a darkish energy to the winter/wither center part, and a showy however not exaggerated pause proper earlier than the top. All that was refreshing. However within the grand pas de deux for Nutcracker and Sugar Plum, the haunted preliminary cello melody (maybe looking forward to Clara’s rising up) was bereft of emotion, the Nutcracker’s tarantella variation flitted by with out remark, and Sugar Plum’s variation, although beautiful in its celesta sound, was heavy-handed in its phrasing — one might hardly envision the ballerina’s exact piqué steps on pointe. The pas de deux coda whipped by; the overall coda (the place the divertissement dancers return for a type of musical bow) went at an inexpensive clip for a waltz, however the apotheosis was earthbound.

Aside from there being extra strings than I’m used to listening to in Nutcracker (there’s restricted orchestra pit area each on the Boston Opera Home and at its predecessor in internet hosting Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker, the Wang Theater), the BSO sounded splendid. And maybe, for the ears of a symphony viewers, Nelsons led a splendid studying. On Thursday, the notes might have danced, however Tchaikovsky wrote this rating to help our bodies in movement.

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, artwork, movie, and books for the previous 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and presently for the Boston Globe.

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