Boston Symphony and a solo violinist revisit the 20th century in lyrical fashion
Shostakovich’s legend has become fact — at least for Deutsche Grammophon. The label has given Andris Nelsons’s superb new recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 the misleading title “Under Stalin’s Shadow,” evoking the heroic image of Shostakovich as the dissident composer struggling against the oppression of the Soviet regime. Yet scholarship has essentially debunked the popular interpretation of Symphony No. 10, and its savage second movement in particular, as a musical summation of the brutal Stalinist era. The primary source of the legend, Solomon Volkov’s purported Shostakovich memoir “Testimony,” which is quoted on the CD’s back cover, is now considered a literary fraud by many scholars.
Yet with the Latvian-born Nelsons at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the music itself emerges without exaggeration. Other conductors — most notably Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered the work with the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1953 — have brought out more frenzied aggression and fury. Yet Nelsons achieves something rarer: a beautifully detailed, powerfully delineated and meticulously shaped performance that enforces structural sense on Shostakovich’s 56-minute symphonic sprawl.
The music unfolds with dramatic tension, textural clarity and powerful, though never disproportionate, climaxes. At the same time, Nelsons is alive to the work’s kaleidoscopic emotions, from tender lyricism to manic joy. His atmospheric reading is beautifully, if rather closely, captured by DG’s recording, edited from live performances in April in Boston’s Symphony Hall for the start of a recorded cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies.
Painting with what he calls Shostakovich’s “cold colors,” Nelsons traces the tragic arc of the monumental first movement, slowing building tension to a tightly controlled climax before receding in weary resignation. The hushed strings and plaintive winds, which open and close the movement, achieve a moving sense of stoicism amid desolation. The taut scherzo, with biting strings and crisp brass, cannot quite match the unrelenting intensity of Herbert von Karajan’s 1967 Berlin recording, yet rarely has it sounded so sinister in its rhythmic precision and methodical terror. The finale tugs at the heartstrings, as lonely and deeply melancholic woodwind lines give way, at last, to a manic and defiantly Haydnesque triumph.
The disc also includes a shattering account of the Passacaglia from “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” Shostakovich’s 1934 operatic masterpiece. If this impressive album is any indication, Nelsons, 36, and the Boston Symphony, which recently extended the maestro’s contract through 2022, have a long and fruitful partnership ahead of them. It might even legitimately become the stuff of legend — without resorting to marketing gimmicks.
Listening to the opening of Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto, with its strumming harp and plucked strings preparing the solo violin’s entrance, I’m always reminded of the iconic scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 “Cleopatra.” In the title role, Claudette Colbert, having seduced Marc Antony on her pleasure barge, lifts her eyes and the camera tracks back, revealing silken curtains drawn by a chorus of dancing girls, a shower of rose petals, wafting incense, snaking garlands of flowers, and hundreds of galley slaves plying gilded oars as they set sail for Egypt.
Bartok began his Violin Concerto three years after the release of “Cleopatra” and almost certainly never saw the Hollywood epic. But in an age when composers seemed bent on outdoing one another with opulent orchestrations, Bartok’s score is uniquely voluptuous, an unending succession of seductive colors, textures and exotic rhythms. Of his dozen or so works for soloists with large ensembles, the Violin Concerto exhibits the greatest integration of solo and accompaniment, their musical responsibilities equally shared in a sort of inseparable embrace.
A new recording of this sumptuous piece by the Italian-born, American-trained-German violinist Augustin Hadelich with Miguel-Harth-Bedoya conducting the Norwegian Radio Orchestra was released this summer. At 31, Hadelich is less concerned with splashy athleticism than he is intent on focused and stylish interpretations of the music he plays. His intonation is sweet and pure and his bow arm geared more to agility than brute strength. He and Harth-Bedoya have worked together a lot, and you can hear it in the ease and flexibility of the ensemble.
There’s little here of the visceral drama of Viktoria Mullova and Esa-Pekka-Salonen’s recording or of the quirky folkloristic angularity of Thomas Zehetmair and Ivan Fischer’s. What this new recording captures in abundance is a heartfelt lyricism, conveyed with a compelling earnestness that perfectly suits Bartok’s music. Moreover, the slow movement achieves an ethereal delicacy.
Pairing this 20th-century masterpiece with a sparking performance of Mendelssohn’s beloved Violin Concerto enhances the CD’s broad appeal.
“SHOSTAKOVICH: UNDER STALIN’S SHADOW” Symphony No. 10. Boston Symphony Orchestra
BARTOK: VIOLIN CONCERTO, NO. 2; MENDELSSOHN: VIOLIN CONCERTO