In 'Soviet Realism', the third instalment of its series ‘A Fragile Peace: Between the Wars’, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra focussed on early Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. In a back-to-front programme, they began with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, followed by Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1 in F minor. A fascinating lesser-known chamber work, Eda Rapoport’s Poem was tacked onto the end, preceded by a short feature, ‘Shostakovich and the Absurd’, and Shostakovich’s Tahiti Trot. All items were excellently performed, but the fast cutting from one to the next was rather disjointed. I’d recommend pausing and taking a break between items, given that it’s a recorded programme anyway, not a live concert stream.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony
© Aram Boghosian

It’s an unintended benefit of social distancing that chamber works are getting more of an outing, and the BSO players delivered a highly polished and characterful performance of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The shrill opening woodwind call to attention, answered by warm-toned low chordal brass, set the scene and the angular oboe solo, circling flute and clarinet lines and final mournful chorale were delivered with captivating precision. Stravinsky cuts from one mood to the next without warning, yet the players made perfect sense of this, switching effortlessly between moods.

Nelsons and the BSO are half way through recording their Shostakovich symphony cycle, with some highly impressive results, although they are yet to tackle the early symphonies. Shostakovich composed his first aged 19 as a graduation offering. In a work full of youthful confidence, there are also definite hints of future style, most evident in the Scherzo – racing, helter-skelter rhythms, and use of the piano with its octave runs and glissandi. Nelsons and the BSO gave us razor sharp precision, and great energy, with some impressive solo work from principal players. Sadly, the players weren’t credited on screen or in the downloadable programme notes, but the principal clarinettist and bassoonist deserve particular mention. The first movement’s clarinet solo had great character, and the bassoonist demonstrated exemplary command in some of the fiendish high-wire figuration. The galloping violins in the second movement were incredibly tight, and Nelsons controlled to perfection the accelerando back to gallop after the central mournful section. Tension built from plaintive solos through to the central passionate outburst in the third movement, and the finale’s athleticism and crazy hammerings raced to an electric finish.

Andris Nelsons
© Aram Boghosian

The brief ‘Shostakovich and the Absurd’ feature gave a rapid survey of Soviet Modernism, Futurism, Dadaism and more, ending appropriately absurdly with Nelsons taking Tea for Two with a giant nose! Shostakovich’s take on that song (originally from No, No Nanette, essentially stolen and changed into Tahiti Trot for an entirely different operetta) is a delightful confection, and Nelsons and the BSO gave it a pleasingly delicate touch here. Too straight-faced? Well, the muted trombones were allowed a few wryly comic slides, and the clarinet gave his tune some swing (and impressively expressive eyebrows) in this enjoyable rendition.

To finish, Nelsons and the orchestra were gone from the stage, and Michael Zaretsky and Randall Hodgkinson gave an intensely expressive performance of Eda Rapoport’s Poem for viola and piano. Born in Lithuania in 1890, Rapoport’s family emigrated to the US when she was eight. Her Poem is a single movement piece, with a circling, roaming viola line and pulsing piano chords and a persistent rhythmic pattern throughout. The recording here was highly resonant, adding to Zaretsky’s warmth of tone, but occasionally obscuring precision at the more passionate moments. However, an engaging performance of an intriguing miniature, if a slightly odd programme closer.

This performance was reviewed from the BSO NOW video stream