Two voices from our Age of Anxiety: Shostakovich and Bernstein. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting, Thursday evening at Symphony Hall.
Music from the middle of the 20th century will be the study of many generations. And the works of Bernstein and Shostakovich will be central to those enquiries.
Socially: war and atrocity, oppression and resistance—everywhere. Artistically: the destruction of complacent ideas, of received forms, of proportion. The music created in this era ignored these changes at its peril.
Shostakovich and Bernstein did not, but in their own ways. The juxtaposition of their ideas was on full view Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, with Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Nelsons programmed Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” symphony, with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. For the BSO, one was a continuation of the Bernstein centenary celebration; the other, the next step in the ongoing recording project that will include the entire set of Shostakovich’s symphonic scores.
For listeners, it was a challenge, with great rewards. Bernstein’s poetic and jazzy notions made his symphony seem energetic and undisciplined; Shostakovich’s grand notions, woven together with a continuous thread of invention, described both a sense of noble power and fierce, personal resistance to authority.
Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” programmatically sketches out the ideas identified in W.H. Auden’s book-length poem of the same title. It’s a piano concerto in all but name—or at least yet another variation on what a piano concerto can be.
The poem traces the uncertain path of four characters, searching for meaning and faith, a rootless quest in an industrial age. Hardly a new theme in the mid-century aesthetic, but engagingly explored in verse by the poet, and subsequently the inspiration for this symphony and a Jerome Robbins ballet.
Bernstein breaks the poem’s narrative into two sections: first a series of running variations (with a Prologue), and then a more theatrical (and musically interesting) triptych: a Dirge, a Masque and and Epilogue, performed attacca but in distinctly recognizable moods.
The Prologue creates a contemplative atmosphere, one that unfortunately goes largely unrealized. Certainly not because of the playing. A long clarinet opening stays Lento throughout; the soloist adds a coda, as if to agree, in response.
The two sets of “variations” that follow—marked “The Seven Ages” and “The Seven Stages”—are hardly variations at all, but two discrete threads, with changing musical ideas following hard upon each other. Some textures had appeal; but generally, the orchestration does not take full advantage of the forces onstage: large ensemble, with expanded percussion, including upright piano, xylophone and celeste.
The second half of “Age of Anxiety” has no such limitations. Another Largo—this a Dirge—begins with the soloist, accompanied by an odd horn figure. The dirge figure never vanishes, although it is varied colorfully.
A brisk, jazzy Masque becomes the centerpiece of the work. Set for soloist, stand-up bass (Edwin Barker) and percussion alone, the colors of xylophone, bells, celesta, timpani and harp paint a background, while the piano comps over the top.
Thibaudet played brilliantly, both here and in the concluding Epilogue, another section with multiple ideas. There’s a viola duet (Steven Ansell and Cathy Basrak); a dense, short fugue that leads to a cadenza; and in that cadenza, a touching, old-timey offstage accent from an upright piano (Vytas Baksis). The work ends in a Mahler-esque flourish.
Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony last more than an hour, but the composer’s identity is clear from the opening notes—an rigid, martial figure that suggests less about strength than it does about ambition.
No attempt at precise summary will be made here. The work will be recorded as part of the Deutsche Grammophon project, and thanks for that—repeated listenings are necessary, and will likely reward the time spent.
Overall, a cohesion that unifies the flabbergasting wealth of ideas stands out. As did Nelsons, his attention to detail and his intensity. The entire first movement (of three), the conductor never seemed to miss a detail. One example: a long 2/2 section, the strings bowing a presto figure with almost angry intensity, while filagrees of detail popped up and vanished throughout the orchestra—what an achievement.
Each cadence—all three movements end modestly, vanishing rather than climaxing—maintained the listener’s attention long past the final sound. The middle movement does it with a harrowing, tick-tock percussion figure. That movement—by far the shortest of the three—still had a vast breadth of ideas.
Just as the composer’s voice was unmistakable from the first notes, so too was the impression that this would be an experience to absorb, and to continue to absorb, without any facile conclusions. Hear it again, if you can. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony this afternoon, Saturday and Tuesday evenings. 888-266-1200; bso.org