In 2015, the Boston Symphony began a recording project entitled “Shostakovich: Under Stalin’s Shadow”. It was also the year Andris Nelsons first performed Mahler Sixth Symphony with his orchestra. In the intervening years, he and the BSO have performed nearly all Shostakovich’s major works, repeating some in subsequent seasons. Their approach to the Russian composer seems to have cross-pollinated to profound effect as they returned to Mahler's Sixth for the first time in seven years, yielding a performance by turns lacerating, sardonic, spectral and at times strident, yet always musical.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

The affinity was clear from the treatment of the first movement’s march with its biting attacks and inexorable leaden tread tramping with Shostakovich-like savagery and menace. The snare drum snapped like a whip and the brass blared with a keen edge of anguish. The pacing slowed and expanded for the so-called ‘Alma theme’ as it blossomed lushly in the threatening soundscape, setting a pattern for the rhapsodic and bucolic episodes to come. In each case, Nelsons slowed and lingered without getting bogged down. Given the bruising quality of the music bracketing these episodes, they became all the more surreal and sublime. The marginal audibility of the cowbells, whether deliberate or not, contributed to an otherworldly quality which later infused the Andante

Percussionist Will Hudgins takes aim...
© Winslow Townson

Nelsons chose to follow Mahler’s original ordering with the Scherzo placed second. A skeletal xylophone setting the tone, it became a caustic heckling of the first movement only softened by having the Andante follow it. The angst and despair of the final movement was all the more telling, given the solace of the respite preceding it, while the visual of percussionist Will Hudgins, raising the massive wooden hammer above his head, poised for the three fateful blows, amplified the drama of their impact. The final fortissimo chord cut like a knife across the throat with the timpani beating like a failing heart as the symphony faded out on a pizzicato.

By giving equal weight to the light and darkness and the warmth and  chill in the score, Nelsons presented a Sixth of unusual balance and cohesion. The large orchestra – augmented winds and brass in particular – responded with inspired virtuosity. Dramatic, poignant, and emotionally draining, this was a benchmark performance.