The jockey is the most intriguing of athletes. Modest of stature and physique, he must read and ride horses weighing ten times or more than he does, channel their power, know when to hold them back and when to give them free rein to run. The best become one with their ride. Perhaps it is no accident, then, that the slight and self-effacing Daniil Trifonov not only looks like a professional rider but approaches that Man o’ War of piano concertos, Rachmaninov’s Third, exactly like one. He began Friday afternoon’s performance with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony at a canter, sitting still and upright on the bench. Only his fingers moved. The notes were lucent, the tenor hushed and musing. As the music became more animated, so did he, leaning in and giving the movement its head. In more emphatic passages, like the chordal barrage of Rachmaninov’s dark, first version of the cadenza, he bounced up and down like a rider posting for a show jump, momentarily throwing the weight of his entire body behind his hands. The cadenza’s thundering intensity almost overwhelmed the first movement and clean articulation of melody and rhythm sometimes fell prey to blinding speed, but, for the most part, Trifonov aptly paced himself through the soulful lyricism of the second movement to a final burst of prancing speed in the chimerical third. Nelsons and the orchestra followed his lead, their own exuberance occasionally swamping the piano.

Andris Nelsons leads Daniil Trifonov and the Boston SO in Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons leads Daniil Trifonov and the Boston SO in Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto
© Hilary Scott

With its virtuosity of simplicity and chamber music textures, the Fifteenth Symphony of Shostakovich couldn’t have provided a greater contrast to Rachmaninov’s rainforest of notes and lush melody. Written in a month in 1971 and mostly in the hospital where the composer was being treated for a cascade of health issues, his final symphony describes a cradle-to-grave arc and is flecked with quotes from Rossini, Wagner, various others, and Shostakovich himself. He originally subtitled the first movement “The Toyshop” and it does convey the sense of a shop overrun with children exuberantly playing toy wind and percussion instruments and winding up various things and letting them loose. Lively and bright, the movement is anchored by the opening flute motif which passes to other instruments, then contends, and intertwines with a recurring quote from the concluding galop of the William Tell Overture.

The significance of the Rossini quote might best be explained by the frequent use of the overture’s four movements in the silent era of film. The galop was the go-to score for rides to the rescue and other heroic endeavors and what child doesn’t dream of being the hero from time to time? The orchestra responds with a gale of laughter to the first quote and each subsequent response becomes increasingly darker hued and more agitated. These repeated collisions eventually leave both themes in shards and with any aspiration to heroism in question.

Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO in Shostakovich © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO in Shostakovich
© Hilary Scott

Nelsons was able to express both the innocence and the foreshadowing of experience Shostakovich weaves through the first movement by simply allowing the music the space to speak for itself. The next movement began dark and heavy; childhood dreams were dead. A somber, soulful lamentation with the solo cello, then the trombone, as chief mourners, built to a lacerating funeral march for full orchestra before gradually fragmenting and fading to a barely perceptible roll of the timpani. Nelsons didn’t over-dramatize the muted mockery and derision of the brief second Allegretto.

Quotations from Wagner's Ring and Tristan serve a similar thematic role to the Rossini references in a final movement that mirrors the first. Here they introduce ideas of fate and yearning to a mapping of the inevitable deterioration and fragmentation of the second childhood of old age. Nelsons tracked a slow but inexorable decline taking approximately 17 minutes. The Wagner quotes were hallucinatory and the dance episodes seemed to unfold through a medicated haze. The theme from Shostakovich’s Seventh tolled like a death knell. Fragmented memories of the first movement’s flute motif and other themes randomly sounded in the background until the percussion of the toyshop returned drained of color and vitality, mechanically clicking, clacking and pinging until what sounds like a phone ringing twice ends it all and the symphony concludes as it began, with a chime.

Nelsons held the silence for nearly 30 seconds, an apt gesture for a symphony in which the composer seems to question what meaning music might have when all is fated to end in silence.