For the first night of their annual series of performances at Carnegie Hall, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra selected two mid 20th-century works that few would consider to be amid the musical peaks of the period or, for that matter, of Shostakovich and Bernstein’s overall oeuvre. Remarkable performances of both pieces, bringing forward their myriad qualities, should have challenged the listeners’ prejudices and will hopefully trigger a higher interest in performing these supposedly “tuneless” compositions. Juxtaposing the two scores, composed less than two decades apart, Nelsons also underlined a series of unexpected common features that can be mostly attributed to Gustav Mahler’s long-cast shadow.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

As a conductor, Leonard Bernstein was a great admirer and, arguably, a great interpreter of Mahler’s symphonies. Mahler’s influence might not be as evident in the American’s compositions as in Shostakovich’s (such as here, in his Fourth Symphony, the ostinato in the basses that recalls Mahler’s Second Symphony’s Scherzo or the solo bassoon invoking the mocking funeral march from the First Symphony), but a careful listener might still distinguish it. Both Bernstein’s “Dirge” segment and Shostakovich’s Largo section are, to a significant extent, Mahlerian in nature. The unusual structures of both symphonies – Bernstein’s multi-faceted score with a piano at its center and Shostakovich’s three-movement opus, with just a brief Moderato separating two massive outbursts – are very much indebted to Mahler’s challenge of the Classical-Romantic model. Last but not least, the existential angst marking both Auden and Bernstein’s exploration of identity and faith among four New Yorkers in the aftermath of the Second World War, and Shostakovich’s study of artistic survival in Stalin’s 1930s Soviet Union does have its roots in Mahler’s pre-Great War Vienna.

Commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky and premiered by the BSO in 1949, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2, “The Age of Anxiety” was inspired by W.H. Auden’s lengthy poem by the same name. It wasn’t meant to necessarily be a programmatic work and the composer himself, upon finishing the symphony, expressed his amazement on how literally his opus ended up following Auden’s elucubrations. The work is divided into two parts and multiple movements, the later ones being the most interesting. A striking feature is the role given to the piano, its voice an alter-ego of the composer, expressing Bernstein’s obsessive thoughts about relationships, faith, the meaning of life. The evening’s soloist was Jean-Yves Thibaudet who successfully brought forward, with exquisite technique and a tinge of Ravelian charm, the mercurial character of the music, without ignoring its contemplative qualities. His contribution to the first part’s 14 telescoping variations was always well-pointed and in sync with the orchestra. He was at his best in the jazzy piano-percussion dialogue entitled “The Masque”, but he proved his mastery of Bernstein’s idiom throughout the piece. Nelsons tried his best to both support the pianist and bring a level of discipline and cohesiveness to a composition that seems occasionally to move into different directions simultaneously.

If playing Bernstein’s Second Symphony was a component of the ensemble’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth, a brilliant rendering of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was part of another initiative that the BSO is currently embarked upon: recording all Shostakovich’s symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon.

Written during the debacle following Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’s rejection by Stalin, the composer forced to withdraw the work before its scheduled première, Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was first performed only in 1961. From the Allegretto’s swings between march and waltz, to several attempts to build a proper fugue to the ferocity of full-blown climaxes, it’s an extraordinary composition, unjustly neglected.

This particular performance unequivocally proved two things. First and foremost, the outstanding quality of the BSO’s woodwinds and brass for which this performance was a true showcase (at the end, the conductor didn’t acknowledge any individual contribution but asked the entire sections to stand). Secondly, Andris Nelsons’ fantastic gift for highlighting colorful details, allowing members of the ensemble to shine while maintaining perfect timbral and dynamic balances. Overall it was a superb performance. The final, vanishing sounds of an unanswered question floating in the ether were truly heart-wrenching.