Editor’s Choice, Orchestral – December 2015

Andris Nelsons has intimate first-hand knowledge of growing up under the cosh of the Soviet regime. As an impressionable 12-year old in 1990 he saw his native Latvia declare independence from the Soviet Union, and among the adjustments to be made was the joyful reappearance of his ‘disappeared’ grandfather, who had spent the previous 15 years holed up in Siberia.

Is it because Nelsons understands instinctively the political lunacy that shaped this composer that he can play the music of Shostakovich as opposed to allowing his interpretations to become overstacked with symbolism, metaphor and mythology? Other conductors, of course, shared comparable experiences – Rozhdestvensky, Ashkenazy and Maxim Shostakovich, the composer’s son. But how rare it is to hear Shostakovich’s musical motivation so starkly delineated which, in turn, illuminates the politics.

This first installment in a projected cycle to be released with the tag ‘Under Stalin’s Shadow’, opens with a sonic emergency. Shostakovich’s 1936 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was the source of all subsequent bother that the composer would have with the regime. Denounced in Pravda as “petit-bourgeois formalism”, Nelsons needs you to know precisely why this music displeased The Party. The introductory chords of the Passacaglia, ugly and proud of it, detonate in your ears – screeching dissonance never up for resolution.

Shostakovich was working on his Tenth Symphony when Stalin died in 1953; but Nelsons, as ever, is wary of performing it as transcribed memoir. The arc of the opening movement is plotted meticulously. The individual against the mass; bleak, oddly abandoned wind solos find themselves dragged towards unsettling coexistence with a harmonically volatile tutti. Nelsons lassos the climactic section towards oblivion.

Nelsons’ Shostakovich cycle also reboots DG’s relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in limbo since its 1970s glory days. Under Nelsons, the orchestra has regained a palpable swagger. The snare drum breaks and wind syncopations of Shostakovich’s Scherzo stab, but with a taunting and menacing tease. And as Nelsons leads the symphony through its final two movements, the psychology of the music turns ever curiousier and curiousier. The ‘DSCH’ motif punches through the third movement Allegretto, and the Finale hurtles towards its deranged endpoint where marching rhythms ramble deliriously off-message. I’m reminded of Soviet posters with their false smiles – and that nothing is more menacing than an insincere smile.