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In Jordan Hall, A Far Cry eloquently pairs Shostakovich and Mahler

The conductorless string orchestra A Far Cry gave a gripping performance of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony.Yoon S. Byun

One of the pleasures of a well-curated program can be the feeling that the works of music are not arbitrarily co-inhabiting a single frame, but are themselves engaged in some sort of dialogue across time and space, perpetuating a mutual affinity that continues long after their respective creators have vanished from the stage.

In the case of Mahler and Shostakovich, that affinity runs deep. Both composers famously yoked together the high and the low, the sublime and the grotesque. Both have been described as great musical diarists of their times. And both wrote music that brims with, in the words of Shostakovich’s Mahler-besotted friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, “great philosophical-aesthetic pathos.”


Given the typically massive scale of their respective symphonic works, however, it’s not particularly common to find music by Shostakovich and Mahler on a single program. But A Far Cry, in its characteristically thoughtful Jordan Hall performance on Friday night, found a way to unite the two. The key was representing Mahler with a single movement, in this case the famous Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony; and Shostakovich with his concisely scored Fourteenth Symphony, a luminous orchestral song cycle on the subject of death, based on poetry by Lorca, Rilke, Apollinaire, and others.

Friday’s performance of the Fourteenth was gripping overall, despite a few moments that left something of this score’s expressive potential untapped. For the occasion, the ensemble invited as vocal soloists the soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad, here in nimble and radiant voice, and the bass-baritone Dashon Burton, who sang throughout with uncommon lyricism.

Given that A Far Cry performs without a conductor, this was by necessity a reading held together by the group’s chamber music-like sensibility. Shostakovich’s score embraces extremes of expression, and here the players were persuasive on both ends of the spectrum. Among the highlights were the unsettlingly beautiful moonscapes of “The Suicide” movement, which Tengblad sang hauntingly, and the unbridled fury of the eighth movement, delivered by Burton at white, stentorian heat. Less fully realized was “O, Delvig, Delvig!” which here lacked something of the tonal generosity and cresting warmth required to conjure with maximum impact this deeply moving tribute to artistic friendship, in this case that of Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten.


Complementing the Fourteenth’s reflections on mortality, A Far Cry chose to open the evening with a resonant and sincere account of Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem of 1957, a brief and wordlessly articulate score in which one can hear the Japanese composer’s early fascination with aspects of the Western avant-garde. And the night closed with Mahler’s Adagietto, delicately spun and caringly tended. One’s experience of the Fourteenth was, without a doubt, richer for its inclusion as both epilogue and farewell.


At Jordan Hall, Jan. 10

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at, or follow him @Jeremy_Eichler.