Part of the appeal of the concerto as a genre is the way it can operate, beneath the music, on the plane of myth. These pieces are, among many other things, variations on an endlessly relevant theme: the lone individual voice cast against an enormous collective.
Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto — which received an arresting performance Thursday night at Symphony Hall — only enhances this mythic resonance. Not only do we have a dark, lamenting solo line playing out against a giant orchestral backdrop, but we have the historical figure of Shostakovich, hounded by a regime, writing music that in his own era came to be heard as a veiled repository of private emotion in a mercilessly public time.
The massive Passacaglia of this concerto was in fact the very movement Shostakovich was composing when he was dealt the second terrifying public blow of his career — the notorious Zhdanov decree of 1948 — condemning his artistic path and in effect forcing him to defer the premiere of this piece for seven years. He once even showed fellow composer Mikhail Meyerovich the precise spot under his pen when the blackest of news arrived. Meyerovich examined the score and reported “there was no evident change in the music.” When it came to politics, Shostakovich was not, in the end, a secret dissident, but there is still an extraordinary sense of inner strength and defiance that comes through in the slow burn of this epic movement, as the violin takes flight over the churning, relentless bass.
The closely watched Andris Nelsons is on the podium this week, and the young Latvian violinist Baiba Skride is this week’s soloist. She plays the concerto as a whole with poise, subtlety, and self-possession. The night is indeed vast in Shostakovich’s opening slow Nocturne, and Nelsons shaped the textures impeccably as Skride played with muted coloration and sparse vibrato. In the Scherzo, she projected a dance-like swing through the thickets of wild accents and angular leaps. Some players bring a larger emotional arc to the Passacaglia, building inexorably toward the moment when the solo line takes up the theme in devastating fortissimo octaves. Skride’s playing here was less epic, less persuasive, though still full of intensity. Her account of the long cadenza became, as it must, a riveting soliloquy unto itself. And after the punch and adrenaline of the concluding Burlesque, her encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s D-minor Partita, arrived like a balm.
After intermission, Nelsons, who has long been speculated to be a candidate for the music director post, led Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Despite having conducted the BSO in Carnegie Hall and at Tanglewood, this gifted young conductor had in fact never before performed for the orchestra’s home audience in Symphony Hall. His podium presence was as animated as ever, his gestures a collection of swoops, leaps, and crouches through which he not only communicates very specific musical ideas but also a more primal sense of pleasure in the very act of music-making.
Interpretively, Nelsons appeared intent on making us hear this warhorse with fresh ears, yet his specific choices seemed likely to divide opinion. His account was full to overflowing with a kind of micro-phrasing that did in fact bring out some startling details and sonorities but also on occasion worked against the music’s narrative coherence. It can be a fine line between interpretive revelation and exaggeration, and for me, Thursday’s performance had moments of both in the way Nelsons juxtaposed themes and played up moments of impetuosity. The BSO seemed keen to give him whatever he asked for, and for its part, the large audience gave Nelsons a vociferous ovation. He’ll be back again this summer at Tanglewood.