The Boston Symphony’s cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies written under Stalin has proven to be such an artistic and commercial success that Andris Nelsons and the orchestra will now perform all the rest. The Symphony no. 11 “The Year 1905”, receiving its BSO première, is the first of three Shostakovich symphonies to be presented this season. More a series of variegated and dramatic tone poems than a symphony, the Eleventh depicts the massacre of peaceful demonstrators by trigger-happy Cossacks on “Bloody Sunday”  9 January, 1905.

Andris Nelsons, Paul Lewis and the Boston Symphony © Michael Blanchard
Andris Nelsons, Paul Lewis and the Boston Symphony
© Michael Blanchard

Its focus oscillates between the past and the present, sometimes within the same movement: the 50th anniversary of the 1905 revolution, the 40th of the 1917, and the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. The title of the final movement, “Tocsin”, raises the question just what alarm is being sounded? The recapitulation of themes from the first movement suggests that, in 1957, history was repeating itself. Despite the death of Stalin in 1953 and the more benign (in comparison) domestic practices of the Khruschev regime, repression endures and the true revolution and freedom longed for since 1905 remains elusive.

In what some have referred to as a “film score without a film” Shostakovich abandons the traditional sonata form to fashion a montage of pictorial scenes using seven popular revolutionary workers’ songs and two of his own settings of revolutionary poetry from Ten Poems as his major thematic building blocks. The four movements unspool without a break, various songs recurring throughout, sometimes in extended variations, sometimes unaltered. Nelsons set a spectral and eerie tone for the first movement, “Palace Square”. It unfolded like a long shot from far above as a morning mist disperses to reveal the square in front of the Winter Palace. Bells toll in the distance and muted bugle calls punctuate the haunted hush, then curdle into a piercing wail of lamentation. Usually considered a prologue, a foreboding calm before the storm, the first movement with its mournful, desolate cast evokes the aftermath of the massacre as well, like a Hollywood epic’s birds-eye survey of the battlefield after the battle is over.

The remaining three episodes pose challenges in their architecture with their dynamic ebb and flow with eruptions of music from previous movements. Nelsons maintained balance and built the massive fortissimos with a sense of inevitability. These tutti often end in abrupt, dramatic fashion. The cut-offs were always clean, sharp and arresting with the one closing the symphony like a film strip snapping in two. Each section is challenged, particularly percussion and brass, while violas, cellos and double basses take the lead in this dark-hued symphony. They were all outstanding. In the words of an Anna Akhmatova poem dedicated to her friend, Shostakovich, “a thunderstorm sang”.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major provided an intimate, lyrical opener with Paul Lewis’ nimble, transparent, and playful reading. Nelsons used a reduced orchestra (but with six double basses), and contributed a fuller, more mellow voice to the orchestra’s weightier end of the musical dialogue. It was a persuasive contrast even when Lewis darkened his own tone somewhat for the ruminative second movement. There is nothing showy about Lewis’ playing; he achieves his effects while seeming to do very little. His touch was light, elegant, and precise; his tone bright and clear. Lewis adopted Beethoven’s cadenzas though which of the two sets written by the composer was not specified. He played them with authority and supple expression. The smile which crossed his face at the orchestra’s mischievous poke in the ribs opening the Rondo infected his response and brought the concerto to an exuberant, witty close.