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Shostakovich’s musical home for conscience, revisited at a time of need

At a fraught contemporary moment, the BSO performed Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” on Thursday night in Symphony Hall, concluding its traversal of the composer’s complete symphonies.

Baritone Matthias Goerne performs as vocal soloist in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 on Thursday night, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and NEC Symphonic Chorus under the baton of Andris Nelsons.Hilary Scott

“It seems to me,” wrote Shostakovich to the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “that a few words must be said about conscience. It has been forgotten but we should remember it. … It must be offered a worthy place to live in human hearts.”

The letter seems especially germane this week as the BSO performs Shostakovich’s mighty Thirteenth Symphony against the backdrop of Russia’s horrific war in Ukraine. It would seem a time when, to put it bluntly, conscience has once again been summarily forgotten. And while the human heart may be a worthy place for it to live, this week’s intensely resonant program suggests that a far more robust and enduring repository for conscience may be the music itself.


Shostakovich wrote his Thirteenth in 1962 and, thanks to criticisms leveled by Yevtushenko through the five poems set in this score, it would become the composer’s most overt symphonic indictment of his own society. The poems, one per movement, attack conformism in Soviet life; call out the disfiguring effects of living in a state of perpetual fear; celebrate the unsung role of Soviet women as heroes of downtrodden everyday life; and praise humor as the last defense of the defenseless against those who wield arbitrary power.

It is the work’s stirring first movement, however, that summons the loudest moral thunder, with its setting of Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar,” an explosive poem from 1961 that baldly denounced Russian antisemitism in many forms. This included the country’s refusal to permit memorialization at the site of the notorious massacre at Babi Yar (or in Ukrainian, Babyn Yar), in which, over the course of two days in September 1941, more than 33,000 Jews were shot into a ravine.

This history is not as distant as it may seem, and I mean this not only for the ways in which, as historians of Ukraine have observed, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own contemporary rhetoric echoes that of fascist aggressors past. This is history — and art — that inhabits a dimly lit zone at the edge of living memory. Valeria Vilker Kuchment, a BSO violinist performing onstage Thursday night, had a grandfather named Grigori Laskavyi who was murdered at Babi Yar. And my guest for the evening, Vyacheslav Uritsky, a recently retired BSO violinist, was evacuated as a child from nearby Zhytomyr and witnessed his father blinded by an injury sustained while fighting for the Red Army. Uritsky eventually became a member of the Moscow Philharmonic, with which he performed the world premiere of the Thirteenth Symphony in 1962. Watching carefully on Thursday from Balcony Left, he was deeply moved by the performance — as was I along with, it seemed, many in the hall.


In truth, this is not the easiest of Shostakovich’s symphonies to love. Yevtushenko’s courage in writing and publishing “Babi Yar” can only be praised, but it must also be said that the poems selected in this symphony overall have not aged well. It’s hard to disagree with the assessment of the Russian director Grigori Kozintsev, who once contrasted Yevtushenko’s “facile composition, graced with witty invention” with the depth of Shostakovich’s music, which was “the fruit of suffering … harnessed to historical tragedy.”

At the orchestra’s helm, the Latvian-born Andris Nelsons presided over a boldly drawn reading that was expansive in its sweep and gratifyingly detailed in its execution. The tenors and basses of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus were joined with those of the NEC Symphonic Choir to form a massed chorus that produced a powerful yet flexible sound.


Last month, in another clear echo from this music’s past, the originally slated vocal soloist, the Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, withdrew from the performance, joining the ranks of performers with allegedly close ties to Putin who are for the moment stepping back from Western stages. He was replaced on Thursday by the sweet-toned German baritone Matthias Goerne, who began somewhat tentatively yet grew in confidence as the night progressed. And while Goerne remained buried in his score for all five movements, he ultimately delivered an affectingly dramatic performance.

The Thirteenth was paired here with Britten’s Violin Concerto of 1938-39. Its inclusion on this program might have seemed justified on paper by the score’s historical context (with links to the Spanish Civil War) or by the curiously profound friendship that developed between Britten and Shostakovich near the end of their lives, but in practice all of this background fell away before the incandescent playing of violin soloist Augustin Hadelich. It was a knockout performance that blended intellect and emotion, poised musicality and raw expressive fervor, and left you wondering why this work is so rarely programmed. His solo Bach encore felt singularly generous, and held the hall spellbound.

I’m tempted to summarize that this program made for a meaningful conclusion to the BSO’s season — but to speak in terms of subscription seasons on this occasion seems to miss the point. This was a concert in which the music’s proximity to both historical and contemporary suffering made it feel viscerally charged and vital. At the very end of the Thirteenth, Nelsons held the hall in a pristine, capacious silence that seemed to last an eternity. If it was, perhaps, a private moment of silence for Ukraine, it became a beautifully communal moment, one created by a composer’s stentorian conscience, voiced for his own time, returning through his art to both chasten, and illuminate, ours.



Andris Nelsons, conductor

At Symphony Hall, May 4 (repeats May 6)

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.