Nelsons, Boston Symphony reflect on mortality during a tragic week

November 21, 2015
By David Wright
Andris Nelsons conducted the BSO in music of Bach, Berg and Shostakovich Thursday night.

Andris Nelsons conducted the BSO in music of Bach, Berg and Shostakovich Thursday night.

A Boston Symphony Orchestra program planned a year or more ago proved sadly appropriate to this third week of November 2015, as Andris Nelsons led the orchestra Thursday night in darkly meditative music by Bach, Berg and Shostakovich that seemed chosen to memorialize the victims of terrorism in Paris.

Nelsons tried to acknowledge that fact in remarks to the audience before the music, but words mostly failed him as he spoke haltingly of “dramatic events in the world” and said “we need this nourishment of music.”

He cut the commentary short and turned to conduct the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (well prepared by guest chorus conductor Edward Maclary) in Bach’s choral motet Komm, Jesu, komm, a reflection on the burdens of this life and blessed union with Jesus in the next. Bach’s double-chorus effects—for example, the word “Komm” bouncing around among the singers—gave the music depth and mystery.

Following the practice of Bach’s day, John Finney supplied an organ accompaniment to the chorus, which in the large hall appeared to lead to coordination problems, causing the chorus to sing somewhat tentatively, especially in the motet’s dance-like passages. But the music’s message evidently reached the audience, which sat in respectful silence at the close of the motet.

During that silence, violin soloist Isabelle Faust came onstage. As a prelude to her performance in Berg’s Violin Concerto, the chorus sang a piece quoted in that work, Bach’s intensely chromatic setting of the chorale “Es ist genug” from Cantata No. 60. There was another silence, and then Faust raised her violin to play the concerto’s opening bars at the very threshold of audibility.

As she unfolded Berg’s portrait of Manon Gropius, the composer’s gifted young friend who died of polio at age 18, the violinist played with ease and full tone, the phrases curving gracefully, at one point dancing a Viennese waltz to which Nelsons added splashes of woodwind color.

The second of the concerto’s two movements introduced more dissonance and drama, but ultimately reached for higher spiritual realms. Faust proved capable of fiery playing without losing her cool, then meditated eloquently alone for long stretches, engaged Toby Oft’s glowing trombone in thoughtful dialogue, and finally floated heavenward amid a gleam of high woodwinds.

Nelsons expertly mixed the colors of Berg’s mostly spare scoring, and allowed the rare tutti climaxes to express themselves fully, sweeping the soloist along with them.

At the end the audience, permitted at last to applaud, sent waves of appreciation in turn to soloist, conductor, orchestra, and chorus.

One couldn’t tell if it was the news from Paris, or the other works on the program, or simply a conception in Nelsons’s mind, but for whatever reason on Thursday night the conductor led the most restrained and introspective performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony this listener has ever heard.

Yes, the snare drum rattled like gunfire in the first movement, and the timpani boomed militantly in the finale, but for most of the way Nelsons held the reins tight and dialed down the volume, probing the work’s inner tensions and dark corners.

In the famous story about this work, Shostakovich, assailed by Soviet authorities as a muckraker and experimentalist, set out to prove he could write an orderly classical symphony, and the Fifth was the result. Nelsons’s highly controlled performance seemed bent on proving it again.

The conductor’s firm hand on the tiller also produced many satisfying moments, including intense suspense in the symphony’s opening pages, a superbly tuned and ultra-soft brass cushion for the expressive flute and clarinet solos, and an inexorable long acceleration toward the movement’s shattering march climax.

Nelsons took the scherzo at a deliberate, almost elephantine tempo. The emphasis on bone-dry Russian wit over flash and dash led to a delicious hesitation waltz featuring the tag team of concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe.

Beginning the Largo, Nelsons finally loosened the reins on the strings, letting them sway and swoon all they wanted. This long, leisurely movement proceeded at a soft-and-softer dynamic (except for one crescendo to a climax shrill with piccolo), with long-breathed, hypnotic solos for Rowe’s flute and William R. Hudgins’ clarinet. Things had gotten so pianissimo by the end that one gentle stroke on the glockenspiel sounded like an alarm clock going off.

Nelsons’s take on the much-discussed last movement didn’t pronounce judgment on Stalin’s regime one way or the other, but let the music be the music: aggressive and grandiose at the beginning and end, preoccupied in the middle with contrasting textures in a soft dynamic, and keeping everything in proportion—a tidy little very loud classical finale with which to end an evening of meditation during a week of reflection.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 617-266-1200.

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