Music works that have become popular over the ages are not necessarily the cleverest pieces, the most original works or even the most musically interesting. Instead, it is often music that affects the listener in a way beyond the expected that piques people's interest. Tonight's program included one of the most affecting and emotionally charged works of the twentieth century, Shostakovich's Symphony no.8. The evening started off with the Overture to Wagner's opera Rienzi, his first lengthy opera (it spans over 6 hours) and one that was premiered to great success in 1841. In tonight's program, however, it lacked some of the intensity common to both Shostakovich's Symphony no.8 and Strauss's Dance of the Seven Veils. The performance was excellent, with Andris Nelsons bringing out certain nuances in the piece I was unaware existed before hearing this performance. But the emotional depth that makes Shostakovich's Eight Symphony such an impressive work did somehow seem to be lacking in this particular Wagner overture.

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

Richard Strauss’s Der Tanz der sieben Schleier (Dance of the Seven Veils) from his fantastic opera Salome was more exciting. The piece depicts Salome's seduction of Herodes, in order to convince him to give her John the Baptist's head. While listening to the piece you can imagine Salome's dancing: seductive, aggressive, playful but with a very definite dark side. The many tempo changes and rhythms emphasized these different elements, with the seductive feel being ever-present. The Concertgebouw Orchestra certainly showed its immense skill in their performance and there was an obvious connection with Andris Nelsons, whose body language and conducting skills dragged the musicians into a captivating dance.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no.8 is an intensely emotional piece of music. There’s a certain fragility – especially in the string section – yet it is also aggressive, sometimes ironic and most of all commanding and bleak. Shostakovich himself allegedly considered it to be a requiem and after the triumphant reception of his Seventh Symphony, this work did not achieve great success and was effectively banned from performance after its premier in 1943. Despite this, it is considered to be one of Shostakovich’s greatest achievements, and with good reason.

The Symphony no.8 consists of five movements. The opening adagio is one of Shostakovich’s longest symphony movements and opens with sweeping strings – the double basses played particularly beautifully - that seem to depict a desolate, bleak landscape before reaching one of its many climaxes. One of the most interesting and beautiful things about this symphony are the vast differences in volume, and Andris Nelsons and the Concertgebouw clearly understood the importance of volume: the slow, quiet movements are sometimes no more than whispers, whereas the climactic moments almost blow out your ear drums. Similarly, one of Shostakovich’s grotesque marches that appears just over halfway through the first movement was performed in such a way that you bop your head along while feeling rather uneasy - there is a continuously haunting feel to the music.

The second and third movements are short and fast, but not as triumphant as some of Shostakovich’s scherzos can be. The over-excited woodwinds do make an appearance and rhythmically both these movements are far more energetic than the other three movements. But the third movement in particular has a bittersweet feel to it, again there is the feeling of wanting to smile and cry at the same time: the movement feels ominous. The fourth and fifth movements are more outwardly bleak and emotionally charged, in the fifth movement there are some very slight glimmerings of hope but overall the overwhelming sensation is one of sadness inspired by something almost outlandishly beautiful.

Andris Nelsons lead the Concertgebouw Orchestra to phenomenal heights and created one of the best performances of any Shostakovich symphony I have seen – all the solo parts were exquisitely played but most of all the emotional depth and meaning were more important than any sign of virtuosity, the musicians and conductor understood the music and how to truly draw out its strength and beauty.