Sofia Gubaidulina has always been drawn to non-traditional sounds, something which invariably landed her in trouble during the Soviet era. The bayan, a 200-button Russian accordion, became the source for many of those sounds in solo and concerted pieces. “It breathes,” she has said, possessing an “earthy quality like no other instrument”. Breathing is the inspiration, both literal and figurative, for the Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Bayan given its world première this week by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony.

Baiba Skride, Harriet Krijgh and Elsbeth Moser perform Gubaidulina © Winslow Townson
Baiba Skride, Harriet Krijgh and Elsbeth Moser perform Gubaidulina
© Winslow Townson

The soloists, orchestra sections and individual instruments constantly inhale and exhale, sighing, yawning and groaning chords and chromatic tone clusters in Gubaidulina’s characteristic motif-based style, devoid of long melodic episodes. “Three-ness”, the composer’s own term from her program note, is another organizing principle derived from the “triple” in the title and reflected in the three soloists, the three sections of the piece, the “three basic melodic-chordal structures” of the concerto, and the use of simple triads to create the overarching texture. Gubaidulina has been known to use the Fibonacci Series and related sequences to give rhythmic form to her compositions. Something similar seemed to be in play here.

Swiss accordion virtuoso and concerto dedicatee, Elsbeth Moser’s bayan exhaled a dark groaning chord answered by murmurs from the basses and billowing sounds from the tuba (almost a fourth soloist in this triple concerto). First Harriet Krijgh’s cello, then Baiba Skride’s violin joined in, each with a unique ascending set of overtones. Thus the building blocks for the rest of the concerto were set in place as the various sections and instruments in ear-catching combinations, chimed in to create a luminous dreamscape of shifting colors and sounds. Gubaidulina exploits the overtones of both string instruments throughout. Krijgh and Skride were at all times musical and meticulous in their intonation. The passages they played together had the easy give and take of a chat between two old friends. Just as the music seems to be petering out, the full orchestra surges, blotting out a recapitulation of the dark beginning with a bright explosion of light which brought the audience to its feet.

Gubaidulina made her way down the center aisle from her seat to accept the applause of the audience and the congratulations of her conductor and soloists, who all crouched at the lip of the stage to shake her hand.

Andris Nelsons and Sofia Gubaidulina © Winslow Townson
Andris Nelsons and Sofia Gubaidulina
© Winslow Townson

In the wrong hands,  Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 in C major can seem as bloated and lurid as the corpses which floated down the Neva during the Siege of Leningrad. Four symphonies into his “Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow” cycle, Andris Nelsons has proven that he’s immune to such excesses. The nightmare of totalitarianism uncoils slowly, the first movement’s earworm march initially light and sprightly, like the tune which supposedly inspired it, Danilò’s aria, “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim” from Lehár’s The Merry Widow. As it tightened and grew in force and volume over its 12 repetitions, the march became more sinister and threatening, ultimately careening like a brutish drunkard, a transition so stealthy it was shocking. This was all achieved simply, through a skillful control of tempo, accents, dynamics, and tonal quality.

The tripping dance rhythm of the second movement was tentative and wary, nostalgia tinged with sadness, the oboe keening above the strings until the shrill clarinet briefly turned the dance into a nightmarish parody of itself. The distinctive bells and hymnody of the Orthodox Church intoned the third movement, under Nelsons’ direction an extended meditation filled with longing and tenderness, a requiem for all that was lost. The victory of the final movement was hard won, its celebration ambiguous and muted by exhaustion. Hitler may have been vanquished, but Stalin remained.

The Seventh, at 70 plus minutes, requires great stamina and concentration. Energy flagged at times towards the end, but overall the orchestra met the piece with all it had and all it could give – a harrowing performance of one of the 20th century’s most monumental scores.