Nelsons, Boston Symphony shine brightly in new Gubaidulina concerto and “Leningrad” Symphony  

Wed Mar 01, 2017 at 1:57 pm
Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Richard Termine

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Richard Termine

The Soviet vs. post-Soviet generation gap stretched wide Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Andris Nelsons, performed works by Sofia Gubaidulina and Dmitri Shostakovich that were brilliantly orchestrated and utterly different in character.

As the composer looked on from her seat in the hall, Gubaidulina’s new Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Bayan—premiered last week in Boston– unfolded as a mystical experience, enigmatic and contemplative, yet occasionally aflame with excitement or menaced by earthy roars from two tubas.

Although Gubaidulina grew up under the Soviet system, socialist realism seems to be the furthest thing from her mind. It was, however, the water Shostakovich was swimming in when he penned his patriotic Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”) in 1941, and if he wanders off the realist road now and then in this work, what sticks in the mind are its terrifying evocation of war and the white-hot determination at the end—maybe the best commercial for resolve in the face of a frightening enemy anywhere in music.

In Gubaidulina’s concept, the concerto was not so much about displaying the skill of the soloists—although plenty is needed to perform it—as evoking the dialogue between the soul and the universe. The opening bars contrasted the unsettling sound of loud yawps in tuba and contrabass tuba with swelling cluster chords in the bayan (a Russian button accordion) that sounded like sharp intakes of breath. 

The solo cello and violin explored wider melodic intervals, staking out a separate expressive territory for themselves while the bayan continued on its way with the clusters and chromatic scales that come naturally to it.

Gently sustaining a mostly glacial tempo, conductor Nelsons made the orchestra rattle, glow, thunder and shimmer in ways only this composer seems able to imagine. In fact, tone color and atmosphere feel like “themes” in her music more than any particular sequence of notes. When the bayan and tubas resumed their tense dialogue later in the work, for example, the notes were not the same, but the sense of recapitulation was inescapable.

Along with Gubaidulina’s deft orchestration, the reedy chords of the bayan lifted this work’s sound out of familiar channels. Elsbeth Moser handled the instrument with discretion in a part that, while not showy technically, required exquisite control of the bellows to produce its subtle inflections.

Cellist Harriet Krijgh and violinist Baiba Skride duetted for much of the piece, at times settling into lines in euphonious thirds and sixths. (In printed comments in the program, the composer made much of the number three as compositional element and religious symbol.)

Krijgh’s creamy cello tone projected easily into the hall without forcing as she skillfully negotiated the wide intervals of her part. Skride’s violin sounded slim and silvery at the outset, but found a more robust tone for the energetic cadenza leading to the concerto’s only truly fast passage, a shrill, short-lived outburst for the full orchestra.

This passage, and the work’s emphatic close, might be considered the Shostakovichian moments in Gubaidulina’s colorful concerto. As for the mid-century master himself, Nelsons and the orchestra gave an effective performance of a piece that is better known for the circumstances of its composition and first performance than for its musical content.

Composed amid the suffering and starvation of the Nazi siege of Leningrad, premiered in that city in the most straitened of circumstances, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony beamed out a message of courage and fortitude to the whole world. Ever since then, its cinematic set pieces—the first movement’s enormous crescendo representing the inexorable Nazi advance, and the full-orchestra shout of defiance at the end—have tended to eclipse the long symphony’s many other expressive features.

Nelsons, in his characteristic alert podium crouch, was not about to let that happen. So while the famous passages were expertly managed for full impact, so too were the tender, idyllic opening scenes before the barely audible sound of the snare drum began to hint at the havoc to come.

Starting as delicately as a minuet, the second movement began to swing a little as the oboe solo rose above the dancing strings. Nelsons kept the dynamic very soft, the better to contrast with the middle section’s blatant, sardonic carnival tune. 

A rich low woodwind sonority provided a firm foundation for the third movement’s opening violin melody, and full-toned violas ushered in a fervent crescendo, but this performance was most notable for page after page of long pianissimo lines, beautifully shaped and sustained by Nelsons and his players.

Just a whiff of rat-a-tat percussion was enough to put a rhythmic charge under the finale’s opening bars. It was a sign of Nelsons’s trust in his orchestra, in their third season together, that he didn’t wave the stick much over this movement’s big buildup, but monitored its progress from the podium while the players took care of business. One pointed gesture from the conductor was enough to set off a thrilling surge of energy from percussion and winds.

In the dirge-like closing pages, Nelsons called for swooping phrases and loosened rhythms, without sacrificing forward motion. The juicy brass and shrieking violins reminded the listener that Mahler was one of Shostakovich’s favorite composers, as did the major-minor coloration that added a touch of ambivalence to the all-out fortissimo of the ending. But Nelsons and the orchestra gave it all they had at the end, which was a lot, and the audience was quickly on its feet to applaud.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs works by Gunther Schuller, Mozart, and Beethoven 8 p.m. Wednesday and works by Ravel, George Benjamin, and Berlioz 8 p.m. Thursday at Carnegie Hall.;212-247-7800.

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