Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, born 18 years apart, lived at a time of transitions, both musically and historically. Rachmaninov, with his famous piano concertos and symphonies, seems closely identified with Romanticism, while Prokofiev, in his dynamic and sometimes chromatic music, is Russia’s answer to the emerging modern music of the 20th century. The Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons chose less frequently performed works by the two composers to illustrate that their music share similarities, in their distinct Russian musical language. Nelsons was keen to bring out the sweeping lyricism as well as distinct colors of Prokofiev’s Cantata Alexander Nevsky, composed in 1939, and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, composed in 1940. The result was a thrilling and insightful exploration of the inner workings of the two master composers as the world faced the prospect of yet another destruction.

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve
Alexander Nevsky was originally conceived as a score to accompany a film on an historical hero who successfully defeated invading German knights in the 13th century. When the film was taken off circulation with the German-Soviet Pact of 1939, Prokofiev reworked the score into a seven-part concert piece. With its remarkable orchestration and extensive use of chorus, one can almost visualize the plight of the Russians under the Mongols, the mournful recollection of the past, the cruelty of the invading Germans, the uprising of the Russians against enemies, the famous Battle on the Ice, a young woman’s lament for a lost lover, and the final triumph.  

Nelsons chose to lead his remarkable orchestra in an elegant, transparent and almost understated exposition of the complex score. Tempi were often deliberate, and volume was controlled. Yet there was never a moment’s loss of focus, and the result was a remarkable symphonic journey of an epic. The men and women of Tanglewood Festival Chorus made a major contribution, well rehearsed and singing as one strong voice. The various sections of the chorus were especially adept at the demands of the rousing chorus, “Arise, People of Russia”.

Each section of the orchestra was extremely versatile and refined, but the woodwinds and brass were the center point, the former setting the stage of the piece quietly in the first  section.  Among the remarkable woodwind players, Keisuke Wakao’s oboe solo was notable as he accompanied Nadezhda Serdyuk in her mournful song of “the Field of the Dead.” As the two voices, of oboe and mezzo, wound softly and melodiously around one another, time seemed to stand still. Ms Serdyuk sang the brooding melodies with a voice of deep richness and steadiness that suited the lyrical and yet dark melodies. She had the ability to draw the audience into a quiet inner dialogue by her quiet stage presence.  

The brass was prominent in “The Battle on the Ice,” as the initial slow tempo of the marching Germans soon turned into a frenzy depiction of the battle. The entire orchestra joined in, and for once Mr Nelsons turned up the volume. His conducting still maintained the focus on the melodic arc of the music and he never increased the volume to sacrifice the distinct coloring of each instrument.   

The same restraint and emphasis on transparency dominated Mr Nelson’s conducting of the Symphonic Dances. The dynamic and sweeping melodies throughout were occasionally punctuated by rapid and choppy, even jazzy elements. Rachmaninov, in this last composition, seemed to show an affinity for more modern music, even some chromaticism, and the contrasts were expressed mostly through his orchestration. The woodwinds and brass, including alto saxophone, were frequently employed to express the shifting phrases, moods and tempi, while the strings provided a more solid backdrop of lyrical melodies.  

The piece is most striking in its juxtaposition of the old and new, and the use of a large variety of instruments including a variety of percussions. The players of BSO showed that they are truly one of the best orchestras of the US in this challenging music. The strings were never heavy or forceful but always lithe and transparent. The woodwinds were playful, versatile and distinct. The brass was free from bad notes, and was always clear, bright and yet warm. The percussion players handled a number of instruments adeptly.

The third movement pulled together all the previous elements of the piece and added more dynamic dancelike melodies. Mr Nelsons often expressed changing moods, tempo and volume with explicit gestures and body movements. The pace gradually quickened, and it was a pleasure to hear the horn and other winds, followed by the brass, gloriously conclude the remarkable last gift by Rachmaninov to the US, his adopted country. It was perhaps not a very “Russian” interpretation, and one might have wished for a little more gravitas, especially from the strings, but under Mr Nelsons’ direction, each member of the orchestra shone with remarkable clarity.