It wasn’t our revolution. They weren’t our martyrs.
But anyone with the sense that tyranny must be overcome for freedom, and the desire to honor those who died accomplishing it, would have been moved by the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11—subtitled “The Year 1905”—Thursday evening at Symphony Hall.
The performance was noisy, full of emotion, with hardly a minute that wasn’t drenched in excess. It haunted. It thrilled. It saddened, and left everyone challenged. It was one of those performances that left you exalted to have experienced it, but wondering if you’d really ever want to go through it again.
Andris Nelsons conducted the orchestra, working in his most intense, animated and effective fashion. The sold-out audience was well aware that this was the next installment in the BSO’s recording sequence of all the Shostakovich symphonies, and an aura of careful listening and “this is important” playing prevailed throughout the performance.
Premiered in 1957, the symphony was part of a series of Soviet celebrations honoring the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Adding to the remembrance, Shostakovich chose to recall as well an earlier historic incident, known as Bloody Sunday, when, in 1905, thousands of peaceful protesters where shot in Moscow as they waited to confront the Tsar.
The composer did so by incorporating multiple popular, patriotic songs into the symphonic narrative. Played as one, long uninterrupted movement, shifting ideas and moods from emphatic to mournful to bracingly defiant, the symphony molds those melodies into an historic remembrance.
Muted strings venture a serious, muted, almost lugubrious opening—stretching well into the first movement, and recurring vividly throughout the symphony. At another point, the viola section—playing marvelously—sketches out yet another aching melody. In the finale, a tender English horn figure—Robert Sheena carving it out of the chaos—calms the fury for a moment.
But mostly this work crescendos. It builds consciously, unavoidably and firmly to numerous ear-splitting moments, the horns and percussion rattling nerves and shaking the floors. It was the loudest un-amplified performance this listener has ever heard at Symphony Hall.
Balance issues will have to be addressed for the final recorded version: often the entire complement of strings, playing triple forte, could not be heard at all. But Nelsons achieved his purpose: a tense, fraught performance, sacrificing musical niceties for an emotional wallop.
The evening began in a complete contrast: Beethoven’s even-handed and intimate Fourth Piano Concerto, realized by the estimable British pianist Paul Lewis.
From the first notes—Lewis articulating a brief, gentle and questioning phrase, with the orchestra then repeating it, but in a faraway key—you could sense that this would be more an intimate conversation, than a bravura performance.
Lewis probed, the orchestra responded. Even the first movement cadenza, usually a place for the soloist to unleash virtuosic chops, was used to deepen the dialogue.
You felt that Lewis could do anything at the keyboard: his confident stretching of dynamic ranges to their limits, his brilliant, precise trilling—all of it pushed Nelsons and the orchestra to answer in kind. The audience responded with one of the warmest ovations in recent memory.
The program repeats this afternoon, Saturday and Tuesday evenings. For tickets and information visit www.bso.org or call 888-266-1200.