Nelsons, Boston Symphony close Carnegie stand with mixed Russian program
Andris Nelsons led the orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Prokofiev’s spectacular Alexander Nevsky cantata, and then in the second half conducted the orchestra alone in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. Matched in nationality but little else, the inherent thrills of Nevsky and the innocuous and jejune comforts of the Symphonic Dances were opposing poles of experience that negated each other.
Perhaps flipping the program order would have had a more positive cumulative effect, with Rachmaninoff warming up the crowd and musicians for Prokofiev. Instead, much of the heat of the first half dissipated in the cooling saucer of the second, a mood of daring and commitment turned comfortably numb.
Yet the orchestra played the Rachmaninoff with great skill. The performance pushed through the lugubriousness of the music, especially the second movement Andante waltz, and the ravishing color and phrasing of the entire woodwind section superseded the cloying melodies.
Still, it all amounted to a showy blandness, part of which was Rachmaninoff’s responsibility. There is worthwhile music in the piece, but the whole thing is about twice as long as it should be, and the padding is there to pander through affect, to draw attention to its own gestures.
If only the orchestra had brought it all home with Nevsky. Prokofiev’s piece is an adaptation of his great film score for Eisenstein’s film. The music paints the narrative picture so vividly that the film is never missed. Prokofiev creates and hurtling forward line, lean and sharp like the edge of a sword, but with the weight of a battle-ax.
The overall orchestral sound was gorgeous from the the start, a creamy emulsification of timbres. Fine balances made this sound mostly translucent, but there were stretches where the sound became a blunt, undifferentiated mass—unlike Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev produced effect through detail, he demands transparency.
There was some sloppiness in the rhythms too, especially in the crucial “Battle on the Ice” scene. To the orchestra’s credit, they captured the mood of the music brilliantly, expressing tense, ominous foreboding in the opening “Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke,” and the feeling from “The Crusaders in Pskov” to the end was moving and satisfying.
The low brass played with great presence, but the star of the performances was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Prepared by James Bagwell, they produced a beautiful sound, with a homogenous timbre and flexible color. They sang with great body, at times enveloping the orchestra, even in the battle scene, and the gusto they brought to the music was the primary force for the performance’s intensity. They shouted out phrases in the climactic battle, at the edge of control, and it was gripping.
The mezzo-soprano soloist, Nadezhda Serdyuk, was also excellent. Her voice has a dark color that hints at the classic, and rare, contralto sound. As with the chorus, she focused the attention, rendering ensemble imperfections irrelevant. Her lament in “The Field of the Dead” was heartfelt, full of palpable meaning.
Although a let-down, the second half could not completely dissipate the force of the first half. One was left to wonder, if Nelsons had paired Nevsky with another appropriate piece—Stravinsky, Debussy, Shostakovich—what might have been.