Having Mozart’s Serenade no. 10 in B flat for winds and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 14 on the same Boston Symphony program this week would normally put the accent on chamber music. The winds, completely excluded from Shostakovich’s score, would take the spotlight in the first half, leaving the strings and limited percussion to their task in the symphony. However, though he maintained a chamber music balance and transparency throughout, Andris Nelsons doubled the number of each of the string instruments, resulting in a complement twice as large as the nineteen Shostakovich specified. Whether this was for the purposes of the recordings being made of these performances or for some other reason, such a departure definitely deserved a program note. Illness also cast its shadow with Sir Bryn Terfel compelled to withdraw as he continues to recover from vocal fatigue and Nelsons himself limited to conducting just the symphony thanks to a heavy cold.

Kristine Opolais, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony © Robert Torres
Kristine Opolais, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

So Mozart’s Serenade was performed, in true chamber music fashion, without a conductor. Seated in a semi-circle, the three oboes on the left end faced the two clarinets and two basset horns on the opposite side with the two bassoons in between, the contrabassoon – substituting for Mozart’s double bass – behind them, and the four horns fanning out in a row behind the woodwinds on the right. The physical separation of oboes and clarinets highlighted the volleying and intertwining between the two cohorts of instruments which occurs throughout.

In Mozart’s day, a serenade was an occasional piece commissioned as background music to an evening event, usually a banquet or other festive gathering. It tended to be a recap of popular arias and tunes. Mozart, instead, lavished all his talent on the genre and created a symphonic score in seven movements which runs longer than any of his symphonies. The dominance of oboes and clarinets lends a nocturnal aspect which the BSO wind ensemble captured by creating an overall air of serenity and a sense of music wafting on gentle, evening breezes. The two slow movements glowed with a dusky inner light and the two minuets were lively contrasts, the first stately and composed, the second rustic and unbuttoned. The Adagio, which figures prominently in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, sang like an aria which grows into a duet then further elaborates into a complicated ensemble of interwoven oboes, clarinets and basset horns.

Shostakovich’s failing health kept the prospect of death in the forefront of his thoughts. After he orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death in 1962, he began to contemplate a similar, unsentimental depiction of death in a symphonic song cycle. A prolonged hospitalization in 1969 spurred him to finally compose. He set the poetry of four poets: García Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke (in Russian translations) and the Russian Küchelbecker. Shostakovich changed words and added, deleted or rearranged lines to suit his purpose. The result was the musical equivalent of the medieval genre painting, a danse macabre, a representation of the universality and stark reality and finality of death.

Nelsons’ overall approach was restrained and ruminative. Shostakovich’s sharp rhythms and cutting dissonances sliced but didn’t draw blood. The austere and jagged soundscape was cool but not devoid of light and warmth. The dark humor of “Look here, Madame!” and “The Zaporozhye Cossacks’ Reply to the Sultan of Constantinople” with its scatological invective and barnyard epithets briefly slackened the tension.

Kristine Opolais, Alexander Tsymbalyuk and the Boston Symphony © Robert Torres
Kristine Opolais, Alexander Tsymbalyuk and the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

Ukrainian bass, Alexander Tsymbalyuk has a mellifluous, and reverberant voice evenly and easily produced. He intoned the liturgical, opening “De Profundis” like a Russian Orthodox chorister, matched his tone to the cellos in a plangent “O Delvig, Delvig!” and drained his voice of color for “At the Santé Jail”. Kristine Opolais brought her skills as an accomplished singing actress to bear creating a distinct character for each of her songs. The suicide was a mesmerising, blanched voice from beyond the grave, the woman of “On the Alert” girlish and oddly detached, Madame of “Look Here, Madame!” coquettish before descending into hysterics, and the narrator a mourner at the bier of the poet in “The Poet’s Death”. The two soloists joined for a robotic, affectless “Conclusion”.

Shostakovich did not believe in an afterlife. It was his hope his unstinting depiction of death would be a goad to a greater appreciation of life and remind us to live it to the fullest. That’s a tall order to fill for such a bleak piece and beyond most listeners. A greater appreciation of one of the 20th century’s greatest composers, however, is another story.