PREVIEW: Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, July 8 with the BSO at TanglewoodMore Info
Lenox — When you combine the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), Andris Nelsons, and the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, special things happen. Like Grammy awards. And glowing critical accolades. That’s why this summer’s Tanglewood performances of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 (Sunday, July 8) and Symphony No. 4 (Friday, August 17) may be more significant than many concertgoers realize. Because, at the moment, the Boston Symphony Orchestra seems to be the premier purveyor of Shostakovich symphonies internationally. And who would know this better than the savvy folks at Deutsche Grammophon (not to mention untold numbers of Grammy voters)?
Although one must be wary of the word “definitive” when describing any musical performance, overenthusiastic critics (there are a few) must be forgiven if they use such language to describe the orchestra’s widely praised Shostakovitch performances, the best of which have been digitally preserved and offered to the public in the form of compact discs. The composer’s Fifth Symphony is considered his most accessible, popular, and controversial.
The first two releases in Deutsche Grammophon’s Shostakovich symphony cycle with Nelsons and the BSO (a series of five live-performance CDs titled “Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow”) won the 2016 and 2017 Grammy Awards for Best Orchestral Performance. The third installment (symphonies 4 & 11) is scheduled for release on Friday, July 6. That’s right, just two days before the BSO replicates the first full program Leonard Bernstein ever conducted with the orchestra (November 1944). That historic concert featured Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, which at the time was widely recognized as the composer’s response to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet régime the mustachioed dictator dominated for about three decades. The now eerily familiar political climate in Stalinist Russia presented a deadly threat to the Shostakovich family. And it didn’t get much better when Stalin died in 1953.
Dmitri Shostakovich has been included in the BSO’s repertoire since their first performance of his Symphony No. 1 in November 1935. Their emotional connection to him is founded on a tradition that began in the 1930s with conductor, composer, double-bassist, and (many would say) father of Tanglewood, Serge Koussevitzky, the celebrated Russian immigrant known for his lengthy tenure as the BSO’s music director (1924 to 1949). But Andris Nelsons, one of the last of his generation to train under the Soviet musical tradition (having grown up in Latvia during the Soviet Union’s dying years) is re-inventing that tradition, partly through sensitivities of national heritage and partly through sheer brilliance of musicianship.
“Shostakovich’s way of protesting was through his symphonies,” Nelsons asserts. “It was not political; it was an artistic protest . . . I think these works can change people’s lives and mobilize them to recognize the importance of expressing their opinions,” Nelsons says. But he is careful to point out that Shostakovich goes “far beyond the political to a world of very deep, rich expression.”
When discussing their Shostakovich performances, Nelsons gives high praise to the musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra: “They play these symphonies with such fantastic inspiration and dedication,” he enthuses. And he points to something truly extraordinary about the orchestra’s historical links to Shostakovich: BSO violinist Vyacheslav Uritsky participated in the 1961 world premiere of the composer’s Fourth Symphony in Moscow. “There’s a very special connection with this piece through him.”
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As though Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony weren’t enough for one evening, the first half of Sunday’s program features Rudolf Buchbinder joining the BSO for Brahms’s (literally) unforgettable Piano Concerto No. 1.