For the second successive Monday at the Proms, an American orchestra paired Bernstein with Shostakovich, but with far more convincing results. Following in the footsteps of their Baltimore compatriots, who performed The Age of Anxiety, the Boston Symphony opened with another Bernstein concerto-in-all-but-name inspired by literature, the Serenade (after Plato's Symposium). Composed at the same time as Candide, it fulfilled a much delayed commission for the Koussevitzky Foundation, and provided a work for his great friend, violinist, Isaac Stern.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Bernstein himself stressed that Serenade has no literal programme, but is like a dialogue concerning itself with the nature of love as expressed by seven philosophers at a symposium, which in Ancient Greece meant a drinking party held after a banquet. Displaying a great sense of stillness from her opening soliloquy, Baiba Skride charmed, her golden tone matching her golden gown. Serenade isn’t an extrovert showpiece and although there was enough muscle to rip several bow hairs, Skride never played to the gallery. Her fellow Latvian Andris Nelsons, knees flexed and often conducting with one hand gripping the railing behind him, led a weighty Boston string section with just enough touch of Hollywood schmaltz. Humphrey Burton observed that Serenade “can also be perceived as a portrait of Bernstein himself”, from “grand and noble” in the first movement to “jazzy iconoclast” in the fifth. For all its philosophical dialogue though, Serenade often goes straight to the heart. The beautiful, contemplative fourth movement was most touching, almost fragile under Skride’s sensitive fingers and the finale transported us briefly to Broadway, with its jazz bass and syncopated percussion. 

After the Baltimore's lukewarm Shostakovich 5, the Boston Symphony dug deep to give a sensational account of the Fourth. It was a symphony too dangerous for 1930s Leningrad, causing Shostakovich to withdraw it shortly before its scheduled première. 25 years later, during the cultural thaw in the Communist Party that followed the death of Stalin, the composer was persuaded to retrieve it from a bottom drawer. It still holds a terrifying grip in a performance as good as this.

From the moment Nelsons unleashed brass and percussion with cataclysmic power, this was a performance of white hot intensity. Imagine Munch’s The Scream set to music, and this is pretty much the atmosphere generated – anguish and anger in equal measure. The Boston woodwinds cheekily thumbed their noses, led by a squealing E flat clarinet, as Nelsons, hunched over the score with barely a baton flick at times, navigated his way through the score’s black heart. Brass snarled and spat and the first movement string fugue had whiplash ferocity. Forget velvet – here was an iron fist in an iron glove!

Quiet playing made an impact too, especially the spectral violins in the middle movement, an icy chill imparting an air of menace. The sinister clockwork whirring seemed to warn against the 3am knock at the door. Woodwinds exuded character, from plaintive cor anglais to gurgling clarinets to the priestly bassoons of the finale, their steady tread leading a march to the scaffold. The brass juggernaut then obliterated everything in its path in a vicious Totentanz.

The bleak closing pages, though, were unbearably painful, false hope killed off with a terrifying glimpse into the abyss. Standing on the precipice staring down, you realise there is nothing left. A void. Silence. Few symphonic endings are quite as eerily disturbing.