For this second subscription week of the season, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra returned to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich.
The composer’s symphonies have been a leitmotif of recent years as Nelsons and the orchestra have been performing and recording all 15 works for Deutsche Grammophon, a journey to be completed this May with the season-closing performances of the Thirteenth Symphony. Along the way, the project has grown in scope, with plans to include Shostakovich’s opera (“Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”) and his concertos (he wrote two apiece for violin, cello, and piano).
It was the two piano concertos that took center stage on Thursday night as part of a rewarding program that also included music by Haydn and a reprise of Julia Adolphe’s “Makeshift Castle.”
Written more than two decades apart, Shostakovich’s piano concertos could hardly be more stylistically different from each other. What they share is a certain expressive exuberance, and an apparent pleasure in the visceral thrills of creating music from that welter of ivory and felt, hammers and strings known as the piano. Both works also speak with a notable sense of distance from the existential angst that hovers over much of the composer’s other work in this genre. It’s tempting to attribute this lighter tread to the fact that piano was Shostakovich’s own instrument, and he was an extraordinary virtuoso in his own right. Making music at the keyboard was, in short, his point of physical, felt contact with the mystery and majesty of this otherwise most incorporeal of arts.
The pianist Yuja Wang was Thursday’s featured soloist, and she navigated both works with conviction and fearless technique. The First Piano Concerto, from 1933, features a streamlined, neo-Baroque ensemble and is full of dazzlingly inventive music that slices and dices the genre conventions with irony, parody, and wit. There is also an outsize solo part for trumpet, here taken up by BSO principal Thomas Rolfs with his own sparkling technique matching Wang’s at every turn.
Particularly impressive was Rolfs’s dashing off of the rapid-fire rhythmic passagework at the finale’s conclusion, and best of all, his beautiful account of the extended lyrical solo in the second movement. While certain ensemble moments across the work were slightly out-of-sync (and sometimes more than slightly), Nelsons’s control of the orchestra’s pianissimo just prior to this particular solo brilliantly set up the music that followed.
This solo passage requires the trumpet to sing out through a dampening mute, and something about Rolfs’s expressive generosity triumphing over the literal blockage of his sound felt of a piece with the music’s larger ethos of suppressed-yet-still-resounding expression. In that way, the solo’s metaphoric dimensions also called to mind the broader plight of the arts across so many decades of Soviet life.
The Second Piano Concerto, from 1957, is more conventionally scored and less stylistically eclectic but it is also more of a crowd-pleaser, or at least it certainly was in Thursday’s tightly coiled, veritably immaculate performance. Seemingly unruffled by a small wardrobe malfunction, Wang earned a robust and well-deserved ovation. Then Nelsons and the orchestra concluded the night with a rather old-school take on Haydn’s Symphony No. 100.
To start off the evening, Adolphe’s “Makeshift Castle” made a welcome return after its recent premiere at Tanglewood. The composer, as she explained from the stage, intended the work to explore the manifold tensions between permanence and ephemerality. Both of its movements do so effectively, and with resourcefully orchestrated music that keeps the ear engaged. On Thursday the second movement, entitled “Wooden Embers,” came across with more dramatic clarity, its darkly menacing passages for the brass followed by plaintive solos from the flute, piccolo, bassoon, and cello, as if surveying a set of ruins with a wistful tone. The piece does not so much end as it does dissolve into thin air through an ascending clarinet solo, leaving the listener with (in a nod to Charles Ives) that unanswered question, perennially old and new.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor, Sept. 29
At Symphony Hall, repeats Oct. 1