Lucerne Festival (4): Boston Symphony and Nelsons in Awesome Shostakovich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Lucerne Festival, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Yo Yo Ma (cello), Steven Ansell (viola), Andris Nelsons (conductor) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Lucerne (KKL)  31.8.2015 (JR)

Strauss: Don Quixote
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10


Rarely have I approached a concert with such high hopes; they were not dashed.

Don Quixote is a lovely work, but not easy for the musical novice to dissemble, it can sound like a mishmash.  It is less often played than other Strauss tone poems perhaps only because the others do not require two virtuoso soloists.

Yo Yo Ma is known nowadays for his concerts with the Silk Road Ensemble and for his wide and eclectic repertoire including folk music American bluegrass folk music, traditional Chinese pieces, the tangos of Astor Piazzola and Brazilian music. It was therefore a joy to see and hear him firmly back in classical territory.

From the beautifully crafted opening, Nelsons expertly dissembled the complex work into its various parts and the quality of this orchestra quickly became evident; we soon had Yo Yo Ma galloping up the fingerboard, paying close attention (as to timing) to contributions from the Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe (“Charles Munch Chair, endowed in perpetuity” – that’s how funding American orchestras appears to work). Steve Ansell, principal viola with the orchestra (“Charles S. Dana Chair, endowed in perpetuity”), was a fine warm-toned Sancho Panza, revelling in gorgeous melodies. Nelsons painstakingly brought out every shrill nuance, every quirk such as the trumpets fluttering (supposed to sound like sheep baaing) and sliding tubas and bassoons; he coaxed some ravishing sounds from his new orchestra, silky first violins, biting brass, impressive woodwind.  The splendid orchestra sparkled in their tuttis – I can quite understand why Nelsons extended his contract with the orchestra and they were happy to extend his term.  No matter that the Berliners did not, in the end, quite manage to make him an offer nor that Chailly managed to secure the helm of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

Yo Yo Ma was spell-binding throughout; there were many moments of almost aching beauty.  Ma’s cello sang, Ma beamed (I am unsure whether Ma was playing his Montagnana from 1733 or the 1712 “Davidoff” Stradivarius – that’s how Stradivarius funding works nowadays).

At the very end, Nelsons held up his left hand for what seemed an eternity to prevent the spell being broken too soon, and succeeded. (Apparently, so I am told, at the end of Nelsons’ Mahler’s Third, his farewell concert at Symphony Hall Birmingham with the CBSO, he did the same, and was in tears).

After Shostakovich’s first encounter with the Stalin regime, Shostakovich regained their favour through the Fifth Symphony. His Seventh had been successful but another denunciation followed. The stakes for the Tenth were therefore similar to those for the Fifth. However in 1953 Stalin died and although the composer may have already sketched parts of this work by then, Stalin’s death became a creative catalyst.

Nelsons and his players were clearly very au fait with the symphony. It’s a work already familiar to them from their recent recording on Deutsche Grammophon which has already received much critical acclaim.  The symphony is regarded by many as his finest – Karajan clearly agreed, he only recorded one Shostakovich symphony (twice), the Tenth.

There was menace lurking right from the opening bar, clarinet and oboe soon showed their distinctive mettle. Nelsons was in control of the overall structure throughout.  While the orchestra played, unsurprisingly, mostly with (post-) recording quality, there were some brass blemishes which this time the sound engineers or re-takes could not erase.

The Allegro was taken at spectacular break-neck speed, a veritable frenzy. The Allegretto allowed other principals to display their virtuosity and the section where Shostakovich’s initials (DSCH – or for UK/US readers D-E flat-C –B) form a musical motif made a profound impact.  (Hidden in the same movement, apparently, is a motif played by the horn, the initials of one of his young female students!). After a plangent oboe opening, the Finale scampered along until Nelsons could again unleash his awesome dogs of war, his mighty orchestra. At the end he did not attempt to restrain the audience who yelped their delight.

John Rhodes

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