It was a thundery and stormy Friday evening in the Berkshires. The outside noises competed with and many times overwhelmed the music. Introductory notes given by J William Hudgins, one of the BSO percussionists, meant to give a backbench view on Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, one of the two masterpieces on the program, turned into weather related jokes. After laughing heartily during Hudgins’ witty speech, the public in Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Shed seemed to become restless and lose focus as the storm worsened.

Andris Nelsons leads the BSO © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons leads the BSO
© Hilary Scott

Yefim Bronfman, the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, should know a thing or two about thunderous piano pounding. Educated in the former Soviet Union, he used to take advantage, in spectacularly virtuosic renditions of Prokofiev’s music, of everything that made a piano a percussion instrument. Philip Roth, evoking Brofman playing Bartók in The Human Stain, one of his major novels, referred to the pianist as “Mr Fortissimo” or “a force of nature”. In later years his approach mellowed, his touch turned lighter, his music making became, when needed, unbelievably introspective, warm, delicate. Bronfman is one of today’s foremost interpreters of Beethoven’s concertos, but, alas, it was difficult to realize that during Friday night’s performance. One could argue that the weather (“part of the Tanglewood experience” – my neighbor whispered in my ear) was to blame but the assertion was not necessarily always true. The work-defining piano introduction to the Allegro moderato was indeed impossible to hear. In the Andante though, the extraordinary dialogue between piano and strings lacked tension. Subtle moments of irony appearing in the third movement were skimmed over. Many times, the orchestral interventions lacked sharpness. In general, this version of the G major concerto seemed perfunctory, relying more on genes acquired in previous performances than trying to find new ways to interpret a concerto quite ubiquitous in the repertoire.

After the interval, one really had a sense that a page was turned. Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra offered an extraordinary version of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, the still not enough appreciated magnus opus that waited a quarter century for its first public performance. Nelsons proved again that he has a special affinity for the music of Dmitri Shostakovich and for this symphony in particular. First and foremost, the conductor was able to keep together a difficult to calibrate composition of startling originality that in many other hands could sound fragmentary and directionless. At the same time, maintaining a relentlessly moving forward pace and an unwavering intensity, he brought into focus the score’s “cinematographic” character, with abrupt cuts and lengthy digressions, vacillating between comic and tragic, vehemence and grim resignation, grand and delicate statements. He underlined not only the obvious Mahlerian influences that permeate this music but also the many Russian ones, from Mussorgsky to Stravinsky.

The score employs a huge orchestral apparatus that, when needed, roared stronger than the storm outside. While maintaining irreproachable timbral and dynamic balances, the conductor made sure to allow individual members of the ensemble to shine. Among the many exquisite contributions, one has to single out those of principal bassoon Richard Svoboda, just because the instrument has such an important role in this work.

Several moments stood out: the angry sounding first movement fugato; the dance-like violas motif in the Moderato con moto; the mournful Mahlerian funeral march or the disturbing solo trombone seemingly coming out of nowhere in the last movement. And, of course, the eerie, unforgettable and unexpected finale with music slowly disappearing in the infinite ether.