Andris Nelsons’ www.andrisnelsons.com recording of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra www.bso.org has rightly received much praise. Indeed, I viewed it as a performance that ranks with the very best.
Now from Deutsche Grammophon www.universalmusicclassics.com comes the next instalment of Nelsons’ Shostakovich series with live recordings, again from Symphony Hall, Boston of Symphonies Nos 5, 8 and 9.
CD1 of this 2CD set opens with Shostakovich’s Symphony No.9 in E flat, Op.70, the work that so disappointed Stalin who was expecting a grand apotheosis to mark the end of the Second World War. What he got was a symphony that was shorter than the two preceding ones and of a rather different nature, described by one contemporary critic as grotesque and looked on by some as lacking any gravity.
Andris Nelsons brings a lovely touch to the opening of the Allegro, light textured and fleet often with a sense of fun. Yet this conductor subtly lets the music gain in weight with an increasingly anxious forward drive with manic outbursts from the brass and the strings bringing some terrific playing.
In the opening of the Moderato a clarinet weaves a lovely solo line over pizzicato basses. Here is certainly no joy, just a desperate sense of loss or isolation. The theme is later taken by a flute before the lower strings bring a slow moving rising theme that seems quite world weary and over which the clarinet re-joins, becoming increasingly anxious. There is a further affecting passage for flute before upper strings take the rising theme, bringing a sinister element before a rather wistful coda.
Nelsons provides a sparkling opening to the Presto with some terrific woodwind playing from the Boston Symphony Orcheatra. Yet here the music soon becomes wild and desperate as the rest of the orchestra join, especially the brass, before losing energy to lead into the Largo where brass intone a dreadful moment, as if a grim warning. A bassoon slowly and quietly takes the theme over a hushed orchestra. Nelsons brings a hushed yet gripping atmosphere. Brass intone again before a cymbal clash seems to dissipate the tension and a cor-anglais brings a tragic melody over the hushed orchestra. There is a real sense of deep tragedy.
A bassoon suddenly brings a jollier theme over pizzicato strings as the Allegretto arrives. Again the lighter feel soon dissipates into an anxious, faster flow as the music is developed with many fine woodwind moments as the music moves through passages of changing moods. The music eventually rises in a terrific moment where so many strands come together before pounding out the theme, soon alternating with elements of the lighter mood before a sudden charge to the end.
Nelsons seems to have got inside this strangely disquieting work more than most, finding a depth within the often manic ideas.
Whether Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 in D Minor, Op.47 was really ‘a practical creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism’ following the condemnation of the composer in 1936 is a matter of debate. Certainly Shostakovich moved ahead artistically but not in the direction that his Fourth Symphony was taking him. Either way the new symphony was an outstanding success.
The BSO strings show themselves to fine effect in the opening of the Moderato where Nelsons soon finds a haunting melancholy after the initial opening confidence, shaping the music wonderfully, finding little moments of angst and emotion, weaving through some quite wonderful woodwind passages. Nelsons is quite masterly in how he moves seamlessly between moods, shaping the music almost imperceptibly, balancing his forces as they slowly rise with piano and brass subtly increasing the tempo until we reach an unstoppable forward drive. He finds some terrific moments as the strings, brass and woodwind rise up to a pitch, pacing the music brilliantly before finding the most beautifully hushed close.
The strings bring a terrific incisiveness to the opening of the Allegretto with brass adding some fine phrases before weaving some more impressive woodwind passages. Soon there is a terrific passage where a solo violin and woodwind bring a finely characterised passage. Nelsons brings a real wit to the woodwind and pizzicato string passages before suddenly arriving at the coda.
What a fine opening there is to the Largo bringing some exquisitely controlled playing from the BSO strings with a fine orchestral rubato, slowly adding subtle emotional content. The solo flute and harp bring a sense of isolation before the music slowly rises. The hushed hovering strings are beautifully done with the solitary oboe rising above. When the music rises again Nelsons brings a real depth of emotion, a deep angst as the strings really bite with some quite wonderful control of hush in the later stages before the celeste and strings bring about a fine coda. This is a largo of unusual depth.
Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra bring a really dynamic opening to the Allegro non troppo with timpani and full orchestra, soon finding a fast and furious pace. There is some really stunning playing from all sections of the BSO before the music rises to a thundering peak with timpani. It is wonderful how Nelsons can conjure the most wonderful atmosphere when the music suddenly falls and the strings hold a static quality. Indeed, there are many fine passages such as when the upper strings hold their static line over deep basses and muted brass. When the music starts to slowly build through the woodwind, Nelsons pacing is spot on, building inexorably to the coda with massive timpani strokes – and an outburst of enthusiastic applause.
CD2 opens with seven excerpts from Shostakovich’s Suite from Hamlet, Op.32a where Nelsons finds just the right light touch brings an almost Richard Straussian flair to Introduction and Night Patrol, a real weight to the short Funeral March and much wit and character to Flourish and Dance Music. The Hunt has a great rhythmic drive whilst Ophelia's Song finds a lighter side, as well as charm and wit. After the rather lovely Cradle Song, Nelsons concludes with Requiem finding much depth as a bassoon intones the Dies Irae and timpani gently sound as the music moves slowly and tragically ahead.
When first heard, Shostakovich’s Symphony No.8 in C Minor, Op.65 failed to live up to its predecessor’s popularity. This, I suppose, was inevitable given all the war time hype surrounding the so called Leningrad Symphony. Despite this it is surely one of Shostakovich’s finest utterances.
The basses open purposefully in the Adagio with Nelsons exquisitely shaping the music as it moves quietly and hesitantly forward, with carefully judged tempo and dynamics, slowly adding an emotional pull. There are some very fine string passages as well as some finely blended woodwind sonorities as the music develops. There is an underlying sense of tension that permeates in what is surely one of the finest symphonic of adagios, caught to perfection by Nelsons and the BSO. They find so many fine moments as this movement is woven forward through some darker passages, lit by the violins with their melancholy melody. They achieve a lovely blend of woodwind as the music increases in agitation before rising in drama. Nelsons increases the tension so carefully and naturally. The music seems to grow in drama organically. A stomping march arrives; a xylophone is heard with crisp brass before the timpani and orchestra burst out for the climax, stunningly done. When the cor-anglais solo arrives over a hushed, hovering orchestra it is quite spellbindingly intense. When the cor-anglais finds a warmer tone it is all the more telling after such an intensely melancholic passage. The brass rise towards the end before a quite wonderful coda with a single cornet that colours the last few bars.
The Allegretto is perfectly judged. Piccolo and side drum weave through some terrific passages with finely judged dynamics, finding an inexorable forward drive with some pounding timpani phrases as well as contrasting strings and side drum. Woodwind weave some fine passages right up to the coda.
The Allegro non troppo brings a repeated, motoric string motif around which woodwind add phrases. Nelsons slowly and subtly increases the dynamics before a central section that brings a trumpet over a striding orchestra. Here the BSO principal trumpet is terrific. There is tremendous precision as instrumental outbursts appear against the motoric strings that re-appear. The music rises to a terrific peak where bass drum and orchestra crash only to collapse as the Largo arrives full of deep melancholic anguish with only occasional points of light moving through the tragic landscape. A flute weaves a lovely line, beautiful in its tragic solitude before the music slowly and mournfully glides forward with a clarinet and further flute phrases to the coda.
A bassoon heralds a lightening of mood as the Allegretto opens. Strings glide forward and there is a very fine flute passage over pizzicato strings. A cello brings a lovely flowing passage before the music rises through agitated strings, Nelsons always keeping a fine allegretto tempo. He finds a lovely growth as the music subtly weaves a myriad of instrumental lines. Timpani add strokes as the music wells up, thundering to a terrific climax. A bassoon brings a lighter touch as the music returns to a quieter passage around which a violin weaves the melody, then taken by a cello. Melancholy strings lead ahead giving way to woodwind before pizzicato strings and flute take us to an exquisite hushed coda.
Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are on top form in these live performances from 2015 and 2016. Surely these are amongst the finest Shostakovich recordings available in what is proving to be a highly desirable series. There are useful booklet notes.