It might be unfair to artists playing original material to say that Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra‘s new live recording of three Shostakovich symphonies and an immortal smaller-scale theme – streaming at Spotify – is the frontrunner for best album of the year. Even so, the conductor and orchestra go unusually deep into these profoundly troubled, relevant works: they couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate era to be releasing their Shostakovich symphonic cycle. It’s riveting and timely music, subtly and sensitively performed. Nelsons and the ensemble work a vast dynamic range from a whisper to short of a scream. Unorthodox as this program is, it makes sense in context, the phantasmagoria of the composer’s ambitious first symphony coming into full, savage bloom in two late symphonies and also the Rudolf Barshai string orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing, antifascist String Quartet No. 8.
Let’s start with that piece, the last one on the album, since it’s the most apropos to our time. Shostakovich wrote the string quartet thinking it could be his final work since Krushchev was strong-arming him to join the Communist Party, or else. It’s as timely now as it was when the composer frantically wove his initials into it, in musical notation, over and over again. In 1960, those creepy chromatics meant a knock on the door from the KGB, its drifting desolation a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s regime, its chase scenes being the gestapo coming for a composer who’d finally crossed too far over the line. This remarkably subdued, solemn, utterly chilling interpretation makes an apt soundtrack for the health department marching into an elementary school, lethal needles in hand. Or a New York City hospital ward filled with comatose Medicare patients being sedated to death in order to create the illusion of a pandemic. Or the Australian police ruthlessly tracking some poor guy who’d escaped from solitary confinement after testing positive for a bioweapon-induced illness that went extinct months ago.
Symphony No. 1, which opens the recording, has withstood the test of time well and gets a triumphantly carnivalesque treatment here. There’s a balletesque lilt to the first movement… and that bassoon strut makes an eerie predecessor for a much more macabre theme in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 6.
The lithe, cynical bustle of movement two is irresistible, the orchestra’s vaunted strings adding a gossamer, deep-space twinkle and not the slightest hint of the whirlwind coda that will soon follow. Nelsons’attention to the pulsing echo effects in the forebodingly crescendoing third movement is a characteristically insightful touch, as are the plaintive soloists, foreshadowing the horror-stricken calm of the composer’s Symphonies No. 10 and 11. He holds back the fireworks in the fourth movement until the hordes are at the great gate of Kiev, with the xylophone-like piano a stunning contrast. What a picturesque exhibition.
Shostakovich liked to recycle some of his most twisted themes, and he does that a lot in his final Symphony, No. 15, from 1971. It’s arguably his most death-obsessed work. The flutey intro, followed by an even more cynical bassoon melody and faux pageantry that quotes liberally from the William Tell Overture could be read as death dancing outside the window, whether that’s the gestapo or just the ravages of time – although it’s hard to imagine this composer failing to add his usual sociopolitical context. When the brass come stomping in, the orchestra’s pinpoint precision leaves no doubt what’s going on. In case you wonder what that whiplash percussive effect is, it’s a real whip.
Seamlessly switching gears, Nelsons holds the lingering, vast stillness of the second movement in check: somber passages from solo cello, winds and horn are muted in the face of seemingly inevitable doom, a throwback to Symphony No. 11. The brief third movement is all portents and marionettish evil, underscored by the orchestra’s sheer matter-of-factness. In the final movement, Nelsons puts the spotlight on the parade of wistful figures flickering as the curtain behind draws closer. So the point where someone – or a whole society – meets a sudden, tragic end midway through really packs a punch. At the end, the gulag and the executioner – or just a haunted witness to a hideous period in Russian history – dissolve into shadow puppets.
Symphony No, 14, from 1969, is a lavish, death-obsessed song cycle of sorts much in the same vein as the Babi Yar Symphony, No. 13. Soprano Kristine Opolais and bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk take turns in alternately brooding and acidically surreal interpretations of poetry by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire and Wilhelm Kuchelbecker – hardly doctrinaire Soviet-approved artists.
The utter solemnity of Garcia Lorca’s De Profundis cedes to the grand guignol ballet of his macabre Malaguena. The duet of Apollinaire’s Lorelei is every bit a depiction of a twisted, beckoning Aryan witch as the poet could have imagined.
Similarly, the contrast between Opolais’ angst and the still backdrop in his portrait of a suicide’s grave is downright chilling, as is the carnivalesque antiwar message in On Watch. Those qualities pervade the rest of the symphony, through a whisperingly grim prison-cell tableau, martial belligerence and incessant grim imagery: exactly what the entire world has been forced to grapple with since the spring of 2020.
Except that these are only cautionary tales.