High Anxiety with the Boston Symphony Orchestra

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, Shostakovich: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelson (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 11.4.2018. (RP)

 Andris Nelsons and Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety © Hillary Scott
Andris Nelsons & Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety © Hillary Scott

Bernstein – Symphony No.2 The Age of Anxiety
Shostakovich – Symphony No.4 in C minor Op.43

Andris Nelson and Boston Symphony Orchestra came to Carnegie Hall with three daunting programs, ranging from Bernstein, Shostakovich and Wagner to the New York premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Partita and including high-power soloists Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Jonas Kaufmann and Yo-Yo Ma. Anxiety could serve as the red thread woven through the three concerts, starting off with the opening one of Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, the only performance that I could catch.

My Swiss friends would often quip that they had the luxury of complaining from a very high level, and so it was with Bernstein (as indeed it is for most of us). His concerto-like piece, The Age of Anxiety, composed in 1949 and revised in 1965, is based on W. H. Auden’s extended poem of the same name, in which three men and a woman come to find a cure for boredom, loneliness and lack of purpose, or at least the means to forget them. The poem resonated with Bernstein, and he crafted the piano part as an extension of himself. Bernstein was not yet 40 when he composed his Second Symphony.

Up the ante to living in constant fear of being crushed by the Soviet State and that sums up Shostakovich’s existence during the 1930s. In 1936, he was working on his Fourth Symphony, which he had envisioned as an expression of his artistic creed, when he was publicly denounced for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The composer, not yet 30, whose wife was pregnant with their first child, suffered the public humiliation of being forced to officially withdraw the work.

In 1949 the BSO premiered The Age of Anxiety, which is not quite a concerto but rather a dialogue between piano and orchestra, with Bernstein as the soloist. Thibaudet has made the work one of his calling cards, here adding a glamorous, theatrical touch attired in a glittery dinner jacket and sparkling evening slippers. His brilliant account of the virtuosic, mercurial piano part tended to dominate the conversation, but Nelson insured that there was give and take. In spite of its subtext, The Age of Anxiety is the young, irrepressible Bernstein, brimming with confidence, and full of complex, wonderful rhythms and scintillating orchestral colors (the pianino echoing the piano was especially beautiful).

Shostakovich’s monumental Fourth Symphony employs the largest orchestra of all of his symphonies and clocks in at over an hour. Nelson brought clarity and subtlety, never stinting on the power, to this massive, complex score. The first movement is relentless and manic, and the orchestra’s wonderful strings propelled its furious fugal passages into almost a frenzy. The wild, weird woodwind playing and intricate percussion drills that followed were fantastic. The third movement was like Mahler on acid. Yet from the daze, a sense of surviving against all odds, indeed one of triumph, emerged.

The symphony ends softly, to the beautiful sounds of the celeste as the music fades away.

Silence was demanded and so it reigned until Nelson dropped his arms.

Rick Perdian

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