It’s been said that every epoch dreams its successor. Perhaps music, more than other arts, can enfold those dreams and carry them forward.
On Sunday Jan. 9, 1905, a crowd of peaceful demonstrators gathered outside the Winter Palace of Tsar Nicholas II in St. Petersburg. Among them was a young, recently married engineer named Dmitri Boleslavovich. He had grown up in Siberia, after his own father had been exiled there in the wake of the attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II. And on that January morning, he was among the lucky ones who survived after the Tsar’s troops opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds and sparking another attempt at revolution.
The following year, Dmitri Boleslavovich and his wife, Sofia, gave birth to their second child, whom they named Dmitri Dmitrievich. And some five decades after that, their son, who had become his country’s most celebrated composer, turned back to that frigid morning of 1905, and wrote his Eleventh Symphony.
Revolutionary songs from the eras ring out from the pages of this fascinating score, titled “The Year 1905,” which was performed Thursday night by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Andris Nelsons. The question has been asked: was this Eleventh Symphony the great patriotic work that Soviet officials heard at its premiere in 1957, or was it a secret indictment of Soviet tyranny and the brutal crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956? We will not, and cannot know. But listening to the BSO’s affecting performance on Thursday, I kept returning to a more basic fact. Most of these songs predate the entire Soviet Union. They were written in the period of Shostakovich’s grandfather’s exile. Among many other things, the Eleventh is music remembering music remembering an older dream of freedom.
Thursday’s performance of this symphony was the BSO’s first in its history, and in truth, it’s not hard to see why. These songs were immediately recognizable to this score’s first audiences — but they are unknown to most American-born listeners. Moreover, while the Eleventh is full of vividly sketched music, with its four movements each given programmatic titles, it still seems to obey a logic almost more visual than musical. We are surveying a vast historical canvas, and the music guides us now to this scene, now to that one.
Despite this episodic quality, the Eleventh’s emotional contours speak clearly and require no translation. The score calls for a huge battery of percussion and the BSO players sent up a mighty thunder on Thursday night. Nelsons led with his own special feel for the music’s brooding intensities, and its play of brightness and gray. He also drew out the Mahlerian echoes that dot this score — distant trumpet calls of untold sadness, low bell-like tolling sounds from the harp. And amidst this work’s piercing climaxes and near-cinematic grandeur, less grand voices also come to the fore. Shostakovich’s gently melancholic writing for the violas and the English horn speak on a more human scale, with a quasi-vocal register and a certain respiratory cadence. This is a more private music, all the more potent for its place within a symphony of crowds.
The work is being recorded as part of the BSO’s survey for Deutsche Grammophon, and while the orchestra was brilliantly responsive to Nelsons’s direction, some marred brass and woodwind passages will be unusable for this recording. Fortunately, the engineers have three other performances from which to get everything they need.
As if to fortify listeners for the journey into unknown musical territory, the concert began with one of the most beloved of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos — the Fourth. The English pianist soloist Paul Lewis was on hand as soloist. You could tell from how firmly he articulated the opening bars that this would be a reading tilted toward classical clarity rather than Romantic reverie. And so it was. Sonorities seemed generally a tad bright for this listener’s taste. But more broadly, that Lewis can play this work with technical aplomb, refinement and good taste was demonstrated without a doubt. As for whether he holds any particularly personal affection for this achingly beautiful music — its meaning rather than its content — that one, he chose to keep to himself.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Sept. 28 (repeats Sept. 29, 30, and Oct. 3)Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy_Eichler.