Album review: The Boston Symphony and Nelsons Shostakovich cycle matures well

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Dmitri Shostakovich symphony-cycle-in-progress with their Music Director Andris Nelsons on Deutsche Grammophon has reached its fifth volume. The latest installation, a two-disc set clocking at two hours and thirty seven minutes, encompasses an impressive forty-six-year span of the composer’s symphonic career, extending from his very first foray to the genre to his last one.

Recorded at the orchestra’s Symphony Hall home between February 2018 and January 2020, the new double-album features four symphonic works by Shostakovich. The first disc couples the nineteen-year-old composer’s mischievous Symphony No. 1 in F major, Op. 10 (1924-25) with his bleak orchestral farewell, known as Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141 (1971), whereas the second pairs the song cycle of Symphony No. 14 in G minor, Op. 135 (1969) with Rudolf Barshai’s compelling string orchestra arrangement of the String Quartet No. 8 (1960), re-titled as Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op. 110a.

While the two symphonies bookending Shostakovich’s life-long cycle could hardly be more different from each other, they do share some fascinating communalities, as the astounding BSO and Nelsons performances demonstrate. Written as his graduation piece at the Petrograd Conservatory, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 is, arguably, one of the most striking symphonic firsts ever conceived. To paraphrase Leonard Bernstein, the symphony is a splendid manifiestation of ”the spirit of up yours”. Feisty and sarcastic, the score demonstrates the composer’s complete command over the symphonic ensemble, while obtaining a delightfully steadfast tone.

The opening movement is comprised of a series of orchestral build-ups of the spiky core material, all crumbling apart in different ways, some exiting the stage quietly, others crashing down prominently. The tongue-in-cheek opening of the scherzo breaks the string ensemble apart, with half of the orchestra dragging one bar behind their colleagues. The mood begins to shift in the trio, where the music seems to become frozen in time. The movement concludes with even more surprising coda, where hammering piano chords herald a looming tragedy.

In the slow movement and finale, bridged together with a snare drum roll, the music gains ever more sonic depth, with Wagnerian allusions woven into the orchestral fabric. In the course of the two movements, the musical irony gradually gives in to symphonic expressivity as the composer, again in Bernstein’s words, is ”caught in his own trap”. However, in order to escape any potentially sentimental cul-de-sac, Shostakovich eventually brings his symphony to an abrupt close, with a brief final build-up and a bang.

A riveting performance from Nelsons and the BSO, the First Symphony is served with such splendid outing, embracing the whole textural and emotional scope of the score, from its rascally brilliant opening to those broodingly dark passages. The BSO musicians appear as top-class chamber players of admirable reactivity as well as a symphonic ensemble par excellence. With Nelsons, the multi-faceted symphony comes off joyfully fresh, with apt flamboyance and engaging drama. The opening movement’s continuous discontinuity is marvellously achieved, as are the twists and turns of the scherzo. The mounting grandiosity of the third and fourth movements is conceived with spirited sensitivity, resulting in an engaging orchestral dramaturgy.

In the ensuing Fifteenth Symphony two relatively brief allegretto movements of biting irony are juxtaposed with two extended slow movements of bleak desolation. Scored for a fairly standard symphonic ensemble with enlarged percussion section, the symphony is probably the most enigmatic one in the composer’s oeuvre. With neither text nor spesific programme, the symphony constitutes a dark-hued symphonic drama, one embedded with operatic quotations from Rossini’s William Tell Overture (1829) in the first movement and Wagner’s Ring (1853-74) and Tristan und Isolde (1857-59) in the last.

Primed by a glockenspiel and flute duet, the opening movement soon launches into surreal orchestral gallop, with recurring references to Rossini. A sonic spectacular of harsh irony, the movement seems to lead nowhere, as its climaxes dissolve into nothingness, somewhat in the manner of the First Symphony’s futile quest of a first movement.

The second movement opens with a desolate brass chorale, followed by a cello solo, emerging from the realm of shadows. The music builds up to a vast nocturnal tableau, akin to a funeral procession. The brooding mood flows into the nightmarish scherzando third movement, where ghost-like musical motives are joined in sardonic, quasi-cinematic danse macabre for orchestra.

Shostakovich’s finale opens with two quotes from Wagner, the Fate motif from Ring followed by a brief allusion to Tristan und Isolde. Out of the opening pages, a gripping orchestral drama emerges, one rooted in isolation and profound sorrow. In the course of the eighteen-minute movement, the orchestra rarely comes together as a full-blown symphonic line-up. Rather, Shostakovich makes extraordinary use of the various smaller ensembles within, giving rise to a captivating multitude of textures and sonic colour.

To bring the symphony to its close, the music harks back to the very beginning as the first movement’s opening material makes a lontano reappearance on celesta, accompanied by percussion and a single, sustained string line.

Another remarkable performance from the BSO and Nelsons, the Fifteenth Symphony is clad in dystopian raiments of shattering intensity. The darkest passages of the slow movements unravel in ghoulish manner, whereas the unrestrained irony of the allegrettos is brought to sounding reality with formidable bite and heat. The antipodean architecture of the movements is well conceived, resulting in extraordinary symphonic dramaturgy.

The second disc opens with Shostakovich’s 1969 fusion of a symphony and a song cycle, known as his Symphony No. 14 in G minor, Op. 135. Scored for soprano and bass soloist, joined by a relatively small orchestra of strings and a generous selection of percussion instruments, calling forth three players. Dedicated to Benjamin Britten, the symphony is cast in eleven movements, with texts derived from the poems of Federico García Lorca, Guillaume Apollonaire, Wilhelm Kühelbecker and Rainer Maria Rilke,each related to death.

In musical terms, the movements are bound together with recurring motifs and textures, giving rise to a symphonic scheme withing the cycle. The orchestral fabric breaks new ground, as Shostakovich experiments with harmony and texture in the most imaginative ways. The vocal parts are conceived as solo numbers and duets, with Shostakovich setting the poems in strikingly evocative manner.

There are no showpieces, in the traditional sense, among the eleven movements. Instead, they constitute a tremendously dark symphonic entity, somewhat akin to Modest Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death (c. 1875), Shostakovich initial inspiration for the symphony. Yet, the symphony calls for two soloists of evocative virtuosity and a conductor sensitive to both the essence of the texts and the needs of the unique instrumental ensemble.

Teaming up with Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais and Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk, the BSO and Nelsons provide a ravishing outing for the symphony, one to keep the listener on the edge of the seat from the opening bars to the very last note. Ever marvellously balanced, the soloists and the orchestra are in perfect accord throughout. The eleven poems unravel in an organic manner, and the symphony comes off as an extended arch of funeral responses between the wondrous soloists and the splendid orchestral forces. A deeply moving experience, this is a performance to remember.

The album concludes with a terrific performance of the Chamber Symphony in C minor. Shostakovich’s original score, String Quartet No. 8 was written in mere three days while the composer was visiting Dresden in the summer of 1960, in conjunction with a film music project dealing with the bombing of the city in WWII.

Cast in five interconnected movements and lasting circa twenty minutes, the quartet is abundant with self-quotations, alongside the composer’s signature DSCH motif. Although dedicated ”to the victims of fascism and the war”, it is commonly believed that the score is essentially an autobiographical meditation or a musical epitaph. In any case, it is one of Shostakovich’s most cherished works, thanks to its unique communicativeness in portraying the dark nights of the soul.

Adapted for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai, the quartet lends itself exceptionally well for the Chamber Symphony format. In a sensitive performance like the one recorded here by Nelsons and the BSO strings, the dead-honest intimacy of the original score is retained, while the extended sonorities of the full string ensemble provide enhanced sonic expression and textural detail.

All things considered, the present release is, by far, the most compelling entry into the BSO and Nelsons cycle, which seems to gain ever more substance with each new release, yielding to a well-matured series. With four more symphonies to go, one looks forward to future releases with thrilled anticipation.

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons, conductor

Kristine Opolais, soprano

Alexander Tsymbalyuk, bass

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F major, Op. 10 (1924-25)

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141 (1971)

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 14 in G minor, Op. 135 (1969)

Dimitri Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op. 110A (1960) – arranged for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai after String Quartet No. 8

Recorded at Symphony Hall, Boston, MA on February 2018 (Symphony No. 14), November 2018 (Symphony No. 1), April 2019 (Symphony No. 15) and January 2020 (Chamber Symphony)

Deutsche Grammophon 4860546 (2021), 2 CDs

© Jari Kallio

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