Grammarians tell us that a contronym is a word that has both one meaning and its opposite. Like cleave (to separate) and cleave (to hold onto as one). Or sanction and sanction. You get the idea — and may now hereby lie in wait for the pedant at your Thanksgiving table.
Thursday night's Boston Symphony program suggested another less likely pair of words may also belong on this list: music and music.
That the same score can be at once a site of self-expression and a screen of concealment was a unifying theme for an evening that paired works by Berg (the Violin Concerto) and Shostakovich (the Fifth Symphony). Both composers, in radically different ways, were masters of the semantic bob and weave. Both could utter a public truth and a private secret, and have them be one and the same. Could it be that this is also one reason why we love music? Does any other art luxuriate so exquisitely in the paradox of its own articulate ambiguity?
The Berg and the Shostakovich were both written in the 1930s, within two years of each other. The Berg, after scholars began to decode its signs and encryptions, now seems to contain Requiems within Requiems, nested like matryoshka dolls. The Shostakovich famously has been read as both an official statement of repentance for the composer's aesthetic sins, and as an Aesopian message of defiance that resonated with the inner life of a people unbowed. On Thursday night, Andris Nelsons had the good sense to treat this pair of works first and foremost as music — in both senses of the word.
In a spellbinding performance of the Shostakovich, he used razor-sharp delineations of musical character as a way of hinting at the vast depths below the surface. This is no small feat. The Fifth is by far the most popular of Shostakovich's symphonies, repeated to the extent that its music often can feel declawed and domesticated, almost to the point of cliché.
For Thursday's searing rendition, that description does not hold. Conducting from a tiny pocket score dating back to his student days in St. Petersburg, Nelsons built the first movement slowly and inexorably toward a violent maelstrom of sound. The Allegretto exuded a dark and earthy humor, as the galumphing heaviness of the opening bars seemed to announce a grand return of Mahler's lacerating irony, here engorged by the fulfillment of its own prophecy. The Largo was a study in inward expression, its luminously bleak melodies drifting past like floes of ice. And the finale had the momentum of a free fall.
On the concert's first half, the performance of the Berg did not speak with the full lapel-grabbing force this music is capable of mustering. But the evening's fine soloist, Isabelle Faust, delivered an account whose hushed reveries and cool colors had a beauty all their own. Nelsons framed key moments of the score, the Carinthian folk melody among them, with palpable care.
Berg ends his concerto with the musical and spiritual assistance of a chorale by Bach, and this week's program offers the rare benefit of hearing the original chorale ("Es ist Genug" from Cantata No. 60) sung by the Tanglewood Festival Choral just before the Berg. In that piece, and in the motet "Komm, Jesu, Komm!" the TFC may not have been in its finest form, but the works still set the stage effectively.
Nelsons went directly into the Berg from the Bach, pausing not for applause but for a brief silence. It was, like the quiet that might hover between two old friends in each other's company, a voluble silence. Or, once more, a word and its opposite.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At: Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats Saturday)