SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Passacaglia. Boston Symphony Orchestra; Andris Nelsons, conductor. DG 479 5059 2 Total Time: 64:52.
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW — Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons became music director of the Boston Symphony in 2014. In December of the same year, he and the orchestra made their first recording together — Sibelius Symphony No. 2 on the orchestra’s own label, BSO Classics.
This recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, Nelsons’ first for Deutsche Grammophon with his new orchestra, marks the beginning of a project to record a number of the composer’s symphonies. Numbers 5, 8, and 9 will follow in about a year, and soon after that 6 and 7. Under Stalin’s Shadow, the series title, alludes to the composer’s continuing struggle to remain true to himself in the face of the dictator’s ever-threatening presence.
As early as 1936, after the premiere of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the composer was publicly denounced by the authorities for both the dissonance of his music and the vulgarity of the drama. After that denunciation, he lived with a Damoclean sword over his head, wondering each time if he would survive his next premiere.
Nelsons was born in 1978, long after Stalin’s death, but life under the menacing rigidity of the Soviet Union must have given him a good sense of Shostakovich’s difficulties.
This first CD in the Under Stalin’s Shadow series begins with the Passacaglia from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It is powerful and disturbing music, and Nelsons and his orchestra raise the roof with it.
Shostakovich completed Symphony No. 10, arguably his best symphony, in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death. Although there is no program attached to this piece, it is typical of the composer’s work in its exploration of a vast range of emotions — brooding and sad in the opening, wild and frantic in the Scherzo lighthearted and optimistic in the last movement. Symphony No. 10 conveys a profound exploration of the human condition.
Early collaborations between Nelsons and the Boston Symphony demonstrated a palpable chemistry, and that perception is emphatically confirmed by this new recording. The cellos and basses in the opening bars play with an expressiveness that transcends a literal rendering of the notes. The numerous wind solos are not just accurately played, but also shaped with artistic individuality. In the big climaxes, the orchestra plays with weight and precision.
It is true that in the waning years of the Ozawa era, the Boston Symphony began to sound ragged and exhausted. After a partnership of nearly 30 years (1973-2002), orchestra and conductor had tired of each other. James Levine (2004-2011) succeeded Ozawa and brought fresh ideas, but his health problems prevented him from being on the podium often enough to make a difference. Today, with the youthful Nelsons in charge — he is only 38 — the Boston Symphony may well be in for a new Golden Age, one that could rival the Koussevitsky era.
This is a Tenth Symphony performance as good as any in the catalog. One of the things that makes it special is the sound of Symphony Hall in Boston, one of the best concert venues in the world. For recordings, it also is nearly ideal. Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic made their legendary 1959 recording of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, not in Carnegie Hall or in any other New York location, but in Boston’s Symphony Hall, which not only has warmth, presence, and generous reverberation time, but also handles a vast dynamic range with ease.
Loud percussion is thrilling on this new recording, but so are the quiet moments. A good example is the end of the slow movement. Beneath the eerie muted violin solo, listen to the soft notes of the timpani, bass drum, and tam-tam. This is an extraordinary moment in the symphony; I have never heard it so beautifully rendered on a recording. Kudos to conductor, orchestra, DG engineers, and to Symphony Hall.
Incidentally, Nelsons has already recorded two of the Shostakovich symphonies he plans to record with the BSO for DG: Symphony No. 7 in 2012 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Orfeo 852121) and Symphony No. 8 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the same year (C Major DVD 709908).
The Boston Symphony recently announced that after only one year on the job, Nelsons’ contract has been extended through 2022. Hard on the heels of this announcement came another: Boston would soon have to start sharing Nelsons with another city. Starting in 2017, he will succeed Riccardo Chailly as music director of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.
Perhaps to offset speculation that Nelsons was already bored in Boston, the two orchestras claimed that they had created an artistic partnership between their organizations. Nelsons would be the primary link, but there would also be tour appearances by the orchestras in each other’s cities, as well as musician exchanges for chamber music events. How real and effective this partnership will be, only time will tell.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.