Switzerland Lucerne Festival  – Bernstein, Shostakovich: Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Baiba Skride (violin) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum (KKL) Luzern, Lucerne, 12.9.2018. (JR)
Bernstein – Serenade (after Plato’s ‘Symposium’)
Shostakovich – Symphony No.4 Op.43
The musical roundabout by which major orchestras tour Europe in the summer bringing virtually identical programmes to music festivals (some struggling to integrate them into Festival ‘themes’) continues but is coming, sadly, to an end. It’s a wonderful way which enables music-lovers in England (at the Proms), Scotland (Edinburgh), Austria (Salzburg), Germany (Berlin) and elsewhere to compare the sounds and virtuosity of the world’s leading orchestras. This week at the Lucerne Festival it’s the turn of the Bostoners under Andris Nelsons.
I am going to start with the work which dominated, in my view, the whole concert and that was the Shostakovich. My fellow reviewer Colin Clarke reviewed the identical programme on this site recently and he clearly was more impressed with the Bernstein than the Shostakovich. For me, it was the other way around.
I must admit I have not had the pleasure of listening to Kondrashin’s 1962 account on disc, but I have heard the symphony many times and, along with many others in the hall, felt this performance was technically and interpretatively utterly stunning. The symphony is a contender for Shostakovich’s most original and profound symphony. It needs a massive orchestra including nine horns, two tubas, twenty woodwinds – a total of 110 players are on stage and at one point Shostakovich asks for a quintuple forte: which we duly got. Nelsons and the Bostoners have recently recorded the work (together with Symphony No.11) as part of their Shostakovich cycle, and the recording has received the highest acclaim. The performance was therefore of recording quality, a few lip faults in the brass apart. The orchestra were outstanding, both in terms of sound, ensemble and virtuosity. This was no collection of highly virtuosic principals but an immense and most impressive team effort. I must however highlight some immaculate bassoon and trombone playing from the principals of those sections.
Nelsons did not gloss over rough edges but brought them very much to the fore in this performance. Earplugs were much in evidence on stage, the sheer power of the music was shattering. This was the highlight of the festival for me (so far, I have one concert to go) and perhaps of the whole year. Nelsons held the applause for a very long time at the end and no-one dared start the applause. On this showing I felt that, under its current Music Director, the Bostoners may be the best American orchestra around at this time. I note with relish that a recording of symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 (the ‘Leningrad’) are on the way. Highlights in the forthcoming Boston season (under Nelsons) include performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony (‘Resurrection’) in late October, Mahler’s Fifth in November and Bruckner’s Ninth in February 2019.
Back to the beginning: Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s ‘Symposium’) is an unusual work, one of his ‘high-brow’ compositions. If his Second Symphony is a virtual piano concerto, then this piece is a virtual violin concerto. I am indebted to Thomas May writing in the concert programme for some anecdotes linking Bernstein and Shostakovich. Apparently Bernstein said most perceptively about Shostakovich: ‘out of this shy man, hidden beyond his eyeglasses, has come some of the most powerful, brash, un-shy music ever written’. Bernstein felt an affinity for the Russian and often conducted his Fifth Symphony. When Koussevitzky conducted the American première of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, guess who played the bass drum – yes, Bernstein! Bernstein and the Boston Symphony are inextricably linked: it was a fifty-year association beginning in the summer of 1940, when he became a member of Koussevitzky’s conducting class, thanks in part to a written recommendation from Aaron Copland. He went on to become Koussevitzky’s assistant. At Tanglewood (Boston’s orchestral equivalent of Glyndebourne) Bernstein conducted the American première of Peter Grimes and the world première of Messaien’s Turangalîla Symphony.
Bernstein’s Serenade is interesting as it does not stick to one form or mood, but traverses many. There is a downside to that: it can come over as disjointed and unfathomable. I was unconvinced by the opening movement; later on, there was some neo-classicism and some jazzy riffs but the heart of the work is undoubtedly the slow movement where Skride was most affecting, leaving the audience breathless. Nelsons kept a tight rhythmic rein on the proceedings.
But for me, the Shostakovich stole the show, hands down. If you are reading this in France or Holland, you can still hear it ‘live’: the orchestra finishes its tour in Paris this weekend and in Amsterdam on Monday (17th).