The return of Andris Nelsons for the Seventh in his complete cycle of Shostakovich symphonies with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra demonstrated yet again the marvellous chemistry between the two. In a highly aerobic work-out, the Latvian conductor prodded and beckoned the RCO, resulting in both a deeply harrowing and subtly hopeful interpretation of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 in C major “Leningrad”. Janine Jansen’s hyper-sensual rendition of Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 1 preceded the towering performance; her fierce fragility contrasted Shostakovich’s roar in this well balanced programme.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

A young Béla Bartók dedicated his alluring first violin concerto to the violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom he was in love. As she did not reciprocate his feelings, the passionate piece remained unperformed until both passed away. Janine, as the Dutch like to call Ms Jansen, greatly enlivened the romantic and sensual angles. In the first of the two movements Andante sostenuto she captivated as Bartók’s languid passages burned with incandescent heat, keeping me on the edge of my seat.

At times leaning back on one hand, a deferring Nelsons voluntarily shrank in Ms Jansen’s presence. The relatively short concerto showcases the talents of the soloist, receiving very little back-up. As the orchestral accompaniment grew slowly, Nelsons expertly introduced each layer in the strings, resulting in a transparent texture. This lucid, lush sound gently cloaked the shrill radiance emanating from Jansen’s violin.

In the playful Allegro giocoso, the tempo increases. Ms Jansen simmered down her play from white heat to a red burning glow. Initially highly serious, she revealed some surprising moments of unadulterated glee as her eyes sparkled during the highly challenging frenzied segments. Later, she offered wit during the game of tag between her and the wind section. Towards the end, throbbing strings pulsated and with Nelsons hopping and bending along, the finale culminated in its brief but explosive finish. Nelsons made sure the orchestra remained accompaniment and never overshadowed the soloist. That would be quite different after the interval with the Shostakovich.

Although ominous threats pervaded tonight’s performance, Nelsons managed to elucidate Shostakovich’s hopeful passages. All sectional leaders performed according to the highest standard in their solos, but the first movement Allegretto belonged to Bence Major on the snare drum. Nestled between the bossy basses and intimidating brass, almost trapped, away from his percussion colleagues, his highly focused rhythmic pacing fascinated.

In the Moderato, Nelsons accentuated the Russian’s fiery high notes on the violins with brooding low registers of the basses, creating an overwhelming, incisive contrast. The conductor increased the strings' intensity, which at some points reverberated, though never uncomfortably, on your eardrums. The oboe solo transported the listener to a foreign, elegantly exotic place. Davide Lattuada’s role in Shostakovich’s bass clarinet passages was most impressive. He brought out his instrument’s rich dark colours, something he would repeat later in the Adagio in the engaging back-and-forth with his section's leader Olivier Patey. Boosting their presence by volume, Nelsons brought out the exquisite contrast of their timbres.

In the Adagio, strings continued Shostakovich’s ostinato style with the slow pace to which Nelsons added a screeching sheen that crept deep under my skin, chilling me with goosebumps. His suspenseful pianissimo reminded of his mentor Mariss Jansons’ great skill. On top of that, towards the end, Nelsons created a sonorous depth from the pizzicato violas together with the harps, adding a vibrant density to this slow part.

Without much pause, Nelsons launched into the final Allegro non troppo. His gesticulations increased as each passage for every instrument seemed to have the most emphatic phrasing. Snare drums returned with the intensity of machine guns. Brass exploded. During the calm contemplative passages right before the climax, the momentum briefly sagged, allowing me to appreciate more consciously the experience, although that did not last long as we were swept away in the smashing climax. 

 With the RCO in top shape, Shostakovich’s Seventh should be considered a high point early this season. With eleven symphonies over the next couple of years, the continuation of this collaboration between Nelsons and the RCO promises many more highlights to come.