By the time one finishes unpacking all the legends that have sprouted around Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, one could have listened to the actual piece a few times over and then some. Composed in three whirlwind days while the composer was ostensibly supposed to be writing music for a propaganda film, the music has Shostakovich’s stamp all over it — its gnawing four-note theme, on the notes D-E flat-C-B, spells out the composer’s initials in German musical notation.
Publicly, the wrenching piece was dedicated to all victims of fascism and war, but the composer’s private correspondence adds layers of complexity. Do the sudden rhythmic pounding chords in the fourth movement represent the composer’s fear of a midnight knock on the door from the KGB? Does it reflect the real depths of a psychic abyss the composer stared down? Or is it truly, as Shostakovich wrote to one friend, “pseudo-tragic?” If you’ve never heard this string quartet, put down your paper or minimize your browser tab, take 20 minutes to listen to it, and then come back; this music lends itself to extreme stories.
It’s no wonder that Shostakovich’s student Rudolf Barshai selected it for orchestral adaptation as the Chamber Symphony in C Minor, and on Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, Andris Nelsons and the string players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra checked off another notch on their ever-lengthening tally of Shostakovich works for recording on Deutsche Grammophon.
Many of the players have no doubt tackled this quartet before, but this was the BSO’s first run at the Chamber Symphony, and at Thursday’s performance the sound was tentative in some parts. Like the original quartet, the Chamber Symphony packs a wallop, but the fuller and not entirely unified sound of the large string orchestra softened and distributed its impact, dialing down the effect of personal claustrophobia and amping a kind of big-screen pathos that dulled the keen edge of the music.
Barshai’s arrangement thins out the texture with solos at critical moments; first associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova dropped an acerbic flavor into her exposed moments, and principal cellist Blaise Déjardin stunned with a melody of desperate longing in his instrument’s soprano range. I wondered what these lead players might do with this piece given a smaller string orchestra and maybe no conductor on stage.
This was a rare evening at Symphony Hall with no soloist, with the Chamber Symphony in the slot typically given to the concerto-of-the-week. (When the orchestra plays this program with pianist Yefim Bronfman during a tour of Asia next month, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 will replace the Shostakovich.) Samuel Barber’s “Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance” simmered in silvery melancholy, betraying no hints of the fury to come even as chromatic shadows crept into the sound. When Robert Sheena’s solo English horn quavered in the borderlands between a soft weep and a full-on howl, everything seemed primed for a spectacular snap — but it didn’t come. The music instead rolled onto a dry plateau and stayed there, as Nelsons conducted almost clinically.
The energy was more alive during Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” an on-the-nose choice of repertoire for an American orchestra touring abroad. The orchestra settled into the symphony’s grooves for a largely by-the-book reading. Nelsons led the Largo at a truly Largo pace, and Sheena spun out its iconic, soul-brushing melody in gorgeous gossamer threads. In the slow movement’s transitions, I heard something short of the seamless unity I’ve come to expect from the BSO wind section, but the wistful second theme was exquisite; carried in unison by principal oboist John Ferrillo and principal flute Elizabeth Rowe, one couldn’t tell where one instrument ended and the next began. If the orchestra adheres to or improves on that baseline, none of their upcoming international audiences should leave disappointed.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Jan. 23. Repeats Jan. 25. The Jan. 28 performance removes “Medea” and adds Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 w/Bronfman. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.