William Butler Yeats noted that we make rhetoric out of quarrels with others but poetry out of quarrels with ourselves. When it comes to the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, many interpreters privilege the rhetoric over the personal and the terrible beauty of its poetry. In his performances of the Fifth and Ninth this season, Andris Nelsons has embraced the binary and sought to effect a balance. He and the Boston Symphony now turned to the Eighth in their ongoing series “Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow”.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

Where others hone a sharp, lacerating edge in this sprawling symphony, Nelsons, building on the example of one of his mentors, Mariss Jansons, favors a less visceral, more introspective and contemplative approach anchored in broad tempi, meticulously calibrated dynamics, and in nurturing a warmer, more mellow string tone. All the doubt, hope, despair, anguish and yearning are there but in the form of an interior monologue. The symphony doesn’t scream; it grieves and mourns. In the wrong hands, a measured, searching approach with such attention to detail can succumb to the episodic. The skein almost unravelled in the doleful Largo as Nelsons lingered a bit too lovingly over its long, closing decrescendo, but he otherwise maintained an overarching tension throughout. The fierce concentration of all involved spilled over into the hall to include the audience.

Shostakovich asks much of his large orchestra in the Eighth, one of his longest symphonies. Nelsons wove the virtuosity of each section and its principals into the fabric of his conception – the flawless flutter-tonguing of the flutes, the violas announcing the third movement with a trenchant ostinato, the sardonic trumpet fanfares later in the same movement, solos by the English horn, oboe, clarinets and bassoon, and the keening violins playing in unison at the extreme of their range or sustaining a barely audible tremolo. The symphony expired in its final bars to the waning pizzicato pulse of the strings and the soft sighs of the flute, leaving rapt silence in its wake.

Giya Kancheli’s Dixi for chorus and orchestra and Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini opened the program, proving that virtuosity for its own sake can sometimes carry a performance where substance is lacking either in a composition or a soloist’s interpretation. Kancheli wrote Dixi on commission from Bavarian Radio in 2009, one of six works meant to be “reflections” of  Beethoven symphonies. These BSO performances are its US première. Kancheli composed Dixi as a response to Beethoven’s Ninth, expressing the idea that, despite the many advances civilization has made, we are still dealing with “age-old problems” and that “the gap between good and evil continues to grow”. Instead of a poem, he set a long list of random Latin phrases ranging from the liturgical Stabat mater dolorosa, to the aphoristic Omnes uno manet nox, to the perplexingly banal Et feci. The choral writing owes much to the Orthodox liturgy, while the orchestral part with its frequent monolithic triple forte tutti brings to mind the Orff of Carmina Burana with more than a hint of Kancheli’s great friend Alfred Schnittke.

The contrast between the orchestra’s massive fortisssimo detonations and the muted choral response sets up a dialogue of sorts which culminates in a final fortissimo for both on the words, Super omnia veritas. Kancheli’s liberal use of the tritone and unresolved minor sevenths in the orchestral writing leaves no doubt that this is a battle between the sacred and profane fought to a very loud draw. It all sounds impressive, particularly when performed full throttle by the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (prepared by guest conductor Betsy Burleigh). But there’s little there, thanks in no small part to the diffuse, mad libs nature of the text.

Nikolai Lugansky has technique to burn. He lit a dazzling bonfire of virtuosity in his perusal of the 24 variations which make up Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody. Fingers flew fast and furious across the keyboard, rolling chords, scattering diamond-like arpeggios, mimicking Paganini’s notorious pizzicato, and carving out cadenzas at a breathtaking pace yet with no loss of articulation. It all left you wide-eyed in wonderment. It also left the variety of color and mood and the piece’s humor without a voice. Rachmaninov believed there was one culminating point in every composition. Once found, all his virtuosity was dedicated from the first note to building to that point. In this sense, Lugansky’s performance was dexterous but pointless.

This was the annual Henry Lee Higginson Memorial Concert, commemorating the BSO’s founder and, for the first 37 years of its existence, sole underwriter. Were he in attendance, he would have taken great pride and pleasure, despite his disdain for “modern music,” in seeing his orchestra thriving under the baton of Andris Nelsons.

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