Commentary: Andris Nelsons/BSO’s new Shostakovich release

Look what came in the mail!

Well. That wasn’t precisely planned for.

Just yesterday, I wrote along to my traditional Tuesday evening train ride fare, the Shostakovich 4th symphony.  I expected to shift into pre-Postmodern Jukebox mode today (heh, see what I did there?).  I have a completed dress to brag on, after all, the followup to my Flapper Flap post of a couple of months ago.

The universe had other plans for me. I’d say “Stoopid Universe!” except what those plans were were to drop the new Andris Nelsons/Boston Symphony release of the Shostakovich 6th and 7th symphonies in my mailbox, despite insisting that it was coming on March 7.  (It’s still insisting that, in fact).  I also ended up working from home today thanks to yet another snowstorm, so ample time to get it ripped and uploaded to my iPhone.

I briefly considered holding off on playing the CD until March 5, which is both my birthday and the 77th anniversary of the premiere of the 7th.  That lasted about three seconds. When it comes to Shostakovich, both the mind and the flesh are weak. I knew it was on my phone, taunting me with its mere presence. When I finished up work, I put it on.  And then, I couldn’t not write this.

So, first the overall reaction:  The engineering of these recordings continues to be of very high quality.  The depth of sound, the clarity in the bass, and the crispness of what we’d call (if this were a movie) the resolution are spectacular.  The soloists also shine, particularly the winds.  It’s almost as if the individual instruments were miked and then appropriately mixed–which is actually possible, I suppose. But that’d be a lot of mikes.

The Sixth is one of those less-appreciated Shostakovich symphonies.  That doesn’t mean it’s not amazing in its own right, but it’s a little like the Beethoven 4th, stuck between two warhorses and just a bit quirky.  There’s a long first movement marked Largo and then two short movements marked Allegro and Presto. I’m not sure if there is any other movement in Shostakovich’s symphonies that is marked Presto. Nope, not even the furious scherzo in the 10th; that’s just Allegro.  I’ve commented before it’s almost as if there is a completely silent fourth movement, but Shostakovich is not John Cage, so it’s an enigma of sorts.  The symphony moves very clearly from darkness to light, from gloom to glee, as it were, and the final movement is light, crisp, upbeat, and genuinely–dare I say it? Cheerful. Decidedly Not Serious. Oh–it’s 1939.  A good Socialist Realist wouldn’t have been writing this thing.

It’s hard to mess up the Sixth, in my opinion, but there are ways to make it stand out–and the way to do it plays right into the strengths of the Nelsons/BSO recordings:  great dynamic range, crispness in playing, and terrific soloists. In the first movement, the second motif is ushered in by quiet, trilling violins, and solos are passed around by various (mostly wind) instruments.  There is an absolutely marvelous low harp chord at one point that sounds like it escaped a horror movie.  And then as this section comes to a close, the trilling of the violins is replaced by the tinkling of the celesta, like the sound equivalent of high wind chimes, if wind chimes were to be heard in the depth of winter. All of this is beautifully accomplished by the BSO.  In the second movement, after all of that quiet, the orchestra finally kicks in at full blast part of the way through as it trips through the triple-time scherzo with a lot of dotted rhythms and play of major and minor sections.  And the orchestra sparkles through that final Presto movement, ending with an enormous bang that just begs the listener to jump up and cheer.

So that’s the 6th.  The 7th, on the other hand–well, there is a bit of a minefield.  There are a lot of differing approaches to the famous ‘Leningrad’ symphony, especially since this seems to be yet another one of those Shostakovich symphonies that is saying several things simultaneously, with layers of meaning.  Every single interpretation of this work–particularly its first movement–sounds different.  Many critics point to Leonard Bernstein’s 1989 recording with the Chicago Symphony as the standardbearer, and indeed, I own this version, which has an incredible raw vitality even as it is, relatively speaking, rather slow in tempo at a little over 82 minutes long.  I just happened on the video of Shostakovich playing the climax of the first movement on the piano yesterday, and he plays it quite fast.  But slow isn’t necessarily boring, and quick isn’t necessarily exciting.  So where would the Nelsons recording fall?

He definitely takes it faster than Bernstein–27:21 for the first movement as opposed to 31:43.  Nelsons starts off the first movement very expressively, with a lot of depth and sweep to the opening theme, not being afraid to slow down or vary from the strict tempo.  And then the ‘invasion theme’ shows up.  This is at or near the tempo Shostakovich played in the piano excerpt.  It’s tight, crisp, and relentless without being angry.  I particularly liked how the chugging ostinato is clearly delineated.  The effect is different from any version I’ve heard before–this is a clean and refined invasion, one that plays up the triteness and artificiality of the theme even it grows monstrous.  This is the first rendition I’ve heard where there seems to be an element of mocking or sarcasm to the bombast. After the invasion burns itself out, we are back into the expressive territory of the opening, and actual feelings of desolation and loss.  It’s quite the contrast, and I very much appreciated the different approach, even if personally I am moved more by the more raw, feral approach of Bernstein.  Or Kondrashin.  After listening to this version, I went and looked up Kondrashin’s recording from the 70s, remembering his blistering take on the 8th symphony and the recordings of the 4th and 13th I’d just heard in the preceding days.  I was definitely rewarded. Kondrashin cuts another minute off of Nelsons’ time (the running time for his recording is a tight 71 minutes, with Nelsons at 78 minutes).  His interpretation of the invasion theme is as raw as Bernstein’s, with the addition of the faster tempo.  (I liked it so much, I’ve ordered a copy of the recording).

Where I liked Nelsons better than Bernstein is in the second movement, normally my least favourite of the 7th symphony.  Nelsons’ faster tempo here adds drama and vigor to the movement, and play up the differences between the rather quiet opening and the loud outburst in the middle.  The third movement–which is actually slower than Bernstein’s reading–is really lovely, with some standout playing by the flutes.  The transition into the fourth movement is striking because of the three tam-tam notes, which so often sound muddy but here are clear and deep.

Nelsons’ reading of the final movement is almost identical in length as Bernstein’s (Kondrashin’s is about a minute faster).  Again, we get the depth, particularly in the bass, that these recordings are known for, and the resonance when the augmented brass kicks in in the last couple of minutes of the work is thrilling.  However, what Bernstein does that Nelsons does not do as well–and which, to me, is so evocative of besieged Leningrad, of musicians barely able to stand but still, somehow, playing these final notes at full volume–is to retard at certain points, slowing down and holding out the tension before a resolving note, almost as if the orchestra is taking a huge breath before going underwater again.  The Boston Symphony, at the end, is playing loudly, but does not sound like they are about to pass out once the final note sounds.  Even Kondrashin does not quite manage the thrill of the Bernstein finale.

So, is this going to become my absolute favourite recording of the 7th?  Probably not, but just as if I can’t ever quite decide which Shostakovich symphony I like best, I am likely going to end up with more than one recording of the 7th I find  worthwhile to listen to.  And now, I want to hear even more of them, particularly to see what other conductors and orchestras make of that first movement.

Also on the disc are a number of pieces from Shostakovich’s score for King Lear, which was written between the 6th and 7th symphonies, and the later Festive Overture, which is a particularly sparkly work that I expect the BSO will hit out of the park.  I haven’t yet had a chance to listen to these, having instead gone researching Kondrashin.  Perhaps I’ll keep those for my birthday present.