A certain line of thinking among composers has long stated that the most perfect performance of any work is the one that, sitting alone with an open score, can be conjured in the mind. And surely there follows from this a related corollary concerning music and travel: you know, why endure Friday-afternoon traffic on the Pike when you can just flip on Ives’s portrait of the “The Housatonic at Stockbridge”? Why schlep to the Suffolk Coast of England when you have the seagulls’ cries and the heave of the sea right there in Britten’s “Peter Grimes”? And why, the argument might go, travel all the way to Leipzig as a Paris-based composer in your 90s when you have, in the vast expanse of your musical mind, a rich inventory of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach?
Some such reasoning appears to lie behind Betsy Jolas’s meticulously charming new orchestral work “Letters from Bachville,” a co-commission of Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus that is receiving its first American performances this week in Symphony Hall. While she had never before traveled to Leipzig, Jolas writes in a program note, the commission prompted her to imagine “roaming in ecstasy through the streets of the mythic city, even treading at times over the very footprints of the great Cantor, while the beloved music poured into my dazzled ears.”
Leipzig thus morphed into the “Bachville” of Jolas’s title, and the piece emerged as a knitting together of these sonic imaginings, fantasies of a musical city where the cherished composer lived and worked for so many years. And yet Jolas, whose distinguished music is steeped in the coloristic rigor of the postwar French avant-garde, was not about to create some facile or nostalgic pastiche. The Bach allusions in “Letters from Bachville” are mostly recessed, oblique, or broken into smaller fragments — a trumpet flourish, a Brandenburgian shiver — dotting the score like the symbology of dreams. The music itself, rich in percussion, often seems to hover in a kind of suspended reverie, or else moves like a slow pan over a pointillistic canvas. On Thursday night, Andris Nelsons led the BSO in a persuasive, vividly drawn performance. Jolas herself, 93, was on hand to accept the audience’s gratitude.
On the other end of the evening was a composition of less carefree origin. Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony was born of a period in the early 1960s when the composer — warped by the Stalin-era terror that never fully left his bloodstream — finally lost his resolve, caved to pressure, and joined the Communist Party. While he had for decades outwardly played the part of the State’s loyal musical representative, this formalizing of his marriage to Soviet officialdom set off a series of sympathetic earthquakes in his art and in his life, ranging from a nervous breakdown, to possibly thoughts of suicide, to the searingly intense Eighth Quartet — a work written, he told one confidant, as an anticipatory memorial to himself.
By comparison, the Twelfth Symphony betrays almost none of the composer’s deep ambivalence. Outwardly a tribute to events of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, it is a rather stiffly socialist realist work, the “triumphant” public face of his newfound alignment with the Party. Over the years there have been various theories about a secret satirical agenda abandoned at the last minute, or about the work offering not a direct “portrait of Lenin” but of the cult of “Lenin propaganda,” and I do find it difficult to accept the composer’s title for his final movement — “The Dawn of Humanity” — without detecting the note of dryly sardonic humor, the exaggerated mimicking of Soviet platitudes, that is sprinkled through his private correspondence. But at face value, the Twelfth seems to be nothing more or less than Shostakovich’s best attempt at a straightforwardly rousing Soviet symphony. After its premiere the work was rushed out across the country, as biographer Laurel Fay notes, and played for “workers, miners, students, and collective farmers.” For Shostakovich’s admirers among the intelligentsia, the Twelfth marked the nadir of his reputation.
For its part, the BSO had never performed the work until this week. In the loud and brightly lit final two movements, Nelsons duly rendered the music’s implacability, its ceaseless forward drive, and the quasi-cinematic immediacy of its panoramas of revolutionary fervor. For the adagio “Razliv” movement, by contrast, Nelsons summoned an empathic, humanizing atmosphere — suggesting this span as a kind of refuge of authenticity — in which the composer’s dazed and self-haunted solo melodies, beautifully wrought by the BSO’s woodwind principals, drifted out over muted strings.
The BSO will in fact play an orchestral arrangement of the Eighth Quartet — the key that unlocks the Twelfth Symphony — later this season on a program in which it’s rather oddly paired with Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. It would have made much more thematic sense to place it here. As it was, Thursday night was rounded out rather more cheerfully by the joie de vivre of Ravel’s jazz-splashed Piano Concerto in G, here performed with wonderful verve by Mitsuko Uchida. The highlight of the Ravel was easily its famous slow movement, which always feels like an island in the middle of this work you do not wish to leave. Uchida agrees, or so her playing of surpassing delicacy told us, as did Robert Sheena’s beautifully long-breathed English horn solo. The ovation was swift and sustained.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor.
At Symphony Hall, Nov. 7 (repeats Nov. 9 and 12).