Apparently, the two compositions featured in the most recent Boston Symphony Orchestra subscription concert have little in common. Conceived almost seven decades apart while their composers lived in self-imposed exile – Sergei Rachmaninov left Russia after the 1917 Revolution and Sofia Gubaidulina has resided since the early 1990s in Germany – the two works share more than faint Russian folklore references, as evidenced by this performance. On one side, Gubaidulina’s music had an unexpected warmth; it didn’t sound like an arid exercise in compensating the acoustic limitations of the traditional Western chromatic scale via incorporating microtones. On the other, Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor was, in this version, far more than an uninterrupted series of richly orchestrated neo-Romantic melodies.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Winslow Townson

But first, BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons started with an homage to the recently departed Bernard Haitink, who became the ensemble’s Conductor Emeritus in 2004 after having been appointed its Principal Guest Conductor in 1995. It was a long and close relationship underlined by Nelsons in his succinct in memoriam speech that preceded an earnest rendition of the Air from JS Bach's Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D major, BWV1068.

Performed in celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday, this convincing rendition of Gubaidulina’s The Light of the End was the first chance for the Bostonian public to listen again to a score commissioned and premiered here in 2003. In her own words, the 20-minute opus derives its name from “the bright sound of the antique cymbals that bring the coda of this piece to a close”. Beginning with sweeping up and down chromatic scales, the music is more than a journey from a confused and directionless state to enlightenment. Written for a large orchestral apparatus, The Light of the End is not necessarily remarkable for its evolutive construction. It sounded more like a series of disparate segments highlighting scenes in a movie – perhaps a reminiscence of the many film scores that Gubaidulina wrote earlier in her career. 

What was extraordinary in this version was the imaginative, attention-grabbing palette of orchestral colors that Nelsons and the BSO instrumentalists brought forward, often avoiding the standard equal-tempered tuning. There was an amazing dialogue between cello (Blaise Déjardin) and horn (Richard Sebring). Percussion was used with great delicacy while the tuba (Mike Roylance) was much more of a presence then we are used to. Between the warm, low voice of a bass oboe and the sounds of horns and trombones playing in a high register, the sonic landscape had something magical.

The Nelsons-led rendition of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony was devoid of the sentimentalism that mars many interpretations of his music. This was a clear, straightforward reading, caressing details but deemphasizing any hint of Tchaikovsky-inspired grandiloquence. The innovative central movement, fulfilling the dual role of an Adagio and a Scherzo, was full of color and delicacy. The music was imbued with the same eeriness heard in the composition’s introductory motto intoned by clarinets, muted horns and cellos. In the outside movements, outbursts were mostly tempered. The rubato in the first Allegro’s second theme and the Dies irae evocations in the Finale were handled with great naturalness. With its dissonant glances, hesitant rhythms and unclearly delimited transitions, the music had a certain enticing, modern ambiguity, not habitually associated with Rachmaninov’s output.