Bos­ton Sym­phony and a solo vi­o­lin­ist re­visit the 20th cen­tury in lyri­cal fash­ion

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - Chin is a free­lance writer. Rucker is a free­lance writer. — Pa­trick Rucker — Si­mon Chin

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


Au­gustin Hadelich

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