The Boston Symphony, Andris Nelsons and violinist Isabelle Faust pulled off the equivalent in baseball of a day/night doubleheader, performing a demanding program of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony little more than 12 hours apart. Everyone involved proved more than equal to the challenge. Friday’s 11am start was dictated by a special Pops performance. Pops concerts require the removal of the seats on the floor and the setting up of tables, chairs and stations for food and beverage service: a major undertaking. As lagniappe, the BSO offered a complimentary breakfast to the patrons who packed Symphony Hall.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

Some of the most fulfilling programs an orchestra can undertake create a conversation amongst the compositions. Berg’s concerto and Shostakovich’s symphony have been justifiably read as requiems. Performing them side-by-side created a prolonged threnody, a lamentation for the dead and an expression of cosmic grief and loss. That such a conversation was in Andris Nelsons’ mind was borne out by the two Bach pieces which opened the concert: the Motet, BWV629, “Komm, Jesu, komm” and the very short Chorale “Es ist genug" from Cantata no. 60 “O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort”. Berg famously quotes the Chorale towards the end of his concerto. The Motet was included to help set the mood, which was ably accomplished by members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Isabelle Faust entered to complete silence at the conclusion of the Motet. As the last note of the Chorale faded, the opening of the concerto crept into the silence.

Faust’s reading was intimate and contemplative, contrasting repose and despair, the visceral and the cerebral. Both soloist and orchestra invited you in, to listen and ponder, even lose yourself in the sound world they were creating. The physicality of Faust’s performance – she lunged, she swayed, she dipped bending at the knees then rose back to her full height – lent energy and a dramatically appropriate range of accents and dynamics to her playing, while her 1704 Stradivarius, “The Sleeping Beauty”, draped the score in an unaccustomed full, rich tone even when she harshened it for expressive purposes. Adorno wrote that  Berg’s “entire oeuvre was directed toward reshaping music itself into a metaphor of vanishing”. Nothing brought this home more than Faust's sustained final note which shimmered like a silver filament rising to the heavens, then imperceptibly vanished leaving the audience suspended in the consoling embrace of silence. Rapt, they momentarily refrained from applauding. Every Music Director but one since Serge Koussevitzky conducted the American première in March of 1937 has programmed Berg’s concerto. Friday’s performance should stand with the best of them.

Both the Berg and the Shostakovich, composed two years apart, are works rich in layered allusions, musical and personal. Like Verdi’s Falstaff, similarly replete with a variety of “easter eggs”, the more you listen, the more you hear. That very richness has led some to freight their interpretations in confining and discursive ways. Nelsons, however, decided in each case to let the music speak for itself, focussing on execution and expression and leaving the insights to the listener. Shostakovich’s symphony has become something of a palimpsest of the 20th century. Nelson’s approach freed it from that excess baggage.

His robust, sharply etched interpretation illustrated the debt owed Mahler, not only in the gate-legged dance rhythms of the Allegretto, but in the juxtaposition of the grotesque and distorted with the sublime and evanescent. So parody gave way to the sober and sombre Largo, imbued with echoes of the Russian Orthodox liturgy for the dead.

The Largo showcased what Nelsons has brought to the orchestra – a loving attention to detail, a palette of colors and a knack for allowing the music the space to breathe in telling fashion. The divided strings which dominate this movement were outstanding. One could well imagine how the audience at the Leningrad première was brought to tears, and at a time when crying in public was a punishable offense!

Nelsons observed the score’s tempo markings for the finale and didn’t adopt the breakneck pace favored by, say, Bernstein and Stokowski, thus allowing the listener to take in the various nods to works by Berlioz, Bizet, Mussorgsky and Richard Strauss and giving full play to the blaring, bloated, brutish march as it devolved into something monstrous and threatening, its slackening, systolic beats of the bass drum resounding like those of Verdi’s Dies irae.

Perhaps the final irony of this piece lies with the audience, which rose with a roar of approval after the concluding sharp, punishing blow on the bass drum, in effect applauding the crushing of Shostakovich’s youthful dreams and aspirations by an unforgiving, monolithic force.