The BSO’s first Andris Nelsons-led performance of a Shostakovich symphony on Thursday night would have been a notable event on its own terms, given the conductor’s clear affinity for this music. But this week’s program also turned out to offer more than a forceful account of the composer’s Tenth Symphony: It marked the launch of a major multi-season Shostakovich project.
The orchestra has announced a new partnership with Deutsche Grammophon to record the Symphonies Nos. 5-10 in live performances, with hopes eventually for a full cycle of all 15 works. This is obviously great news for Shostakovich fans and for the orchestra, which has not had this kind of multi-year recording relationship with a major label since the 1980s. It should also help bring shape and continuity to future seasons, as well as a welcome local focus on a composer whose greatest hits turn up often, but whose symphonic output as a whole still holds plenty of discoveries.
Along with the central grouping of six symphonies, the new project will also feature selections from the composer’s incidental music and at least a small taste of his operatic output. This week’s program, which is being recorded for release this summer, accordingly opened with the passacaglia from Act II of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” the opera that catapulted the young Shostakovich to international fame after its 1934 premiere.
It would be hard to imagine a more bracing curtain-raiser than this rarely excepted interlude, which opens with the orchestra at full dissonant cry. This passage is what an opera audience hears not long after the title character has killed her brutal father-in-law with rat poison. One performance in 1936 was attended by Stalin, who was not among the opera’s fans. Not long afterward, a now-infamous editorial appeared in Pravda, condemning “Lady Macbeth” and serving as a kind of warning shot across the bow. It was the beginning of a wrenchingly fraught relationship between the composer and dictator that continued all the way until Stalin’s death in 1953.
The composer’s Tenth Symphony is usually dated to that same year, so its pairing here with music from “Lady Macbeth” made a certain narrative sense as bookends to a nightmare. Some have heard Shostakovich’s prominent use in the Tenth of his musical signature — a four note gesture derived from his name — as a kind of dancing on Stalin’s grave, the proud defiance of the survivor. But it may have been something more basic, a kind of echolocation of the self in the darkness of the Soviet night.
Recalling the cultural and political world out of which Shostakovich’s music was born tends to deepen its impact, but there’s little to be gained in overly literal readings of its tropes — and much to appreciate in these scores on their own terms. This was demonstrated anew on Thursday in the viscerally articulate, richly characterized, and thoughtfully detailed readings that Nelsons and the orchestra delivered. The opening bars of the passacaglia positively thundered off the Symphony Hall stage, and from there the music unfurled in one unbroken dramatic arc above its churning bass. Nelsons’s particular way of stacking the string and woodwind textures seemed to contribute to the music’s urgency, and the brass playing had both glow and bite.
Thursday’s high-impact account of the Tenth Symphony benefited from a similar grasp of this music’s textural subtleties, the shaping and coloring of its lines, the pacing of its theater, and the importance of its atmosphere. Woodwind contributions were particularly strong. All told, it’s clear this is the right match of conductor and repertoire, and one has high hopes for a cycle that seems poised to become one of the key projects of Nelsons’s tenure.
Adding to this densely packed program was the Beethoven Violin Concerto in a riveting account by Christian Tetzlaff. Here is a soloist who can confer on the most standard repertoire a sense of occasion, and there is never even a whiff of the autopilot all too commonly heard from certain celebrity virtuosos. In this case, Tetzlaff gave the impression of having pulled apart every phrase and turned it over in his hands for fresh consideration.
As if to invert soloistic clichés, he deployed a vast range of pianissimo dynamics, playing several passages in an arrestingly soft register that nonetheless projected into the hall. The opposite impulse also reigned at times, and there was a burst of thrilling, scorching heat near the work’s conclusion. Nelsons, who has collaborated often with Tetzlaff, was an eager coconspirator, meeting him at every turn.