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Music Review

From Shostakovich, a wartime symphony that stands apart from the crowd

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing on Thursday night.Michael Blanchard

Some towering symphonic scores have a way of dwarfing the features of the landscape around them. Such was the case on Thursday night in Symphony Hall, where Andris Nelsons concluded the evening with an intense and harrowing performance of Shostakovich’s massively scaled, and massively tragic, Eighth Symphony. I left the hall with the sense that, before long, it would be hard to even recall what was played on the first half of the program.

So before those preceding performances slip away, allow me to report that the night began with the US premiere of “Dixi,” a rather curious work for chorus and orchestra by the respected Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. It was commissioned by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and intended as a response to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Its text suggests the emptied contents of a Latin phrasebook, with dozens of sayings such as “Ad infinitum” and “Lux in Tenebris” stacked somewhat numbingly on top of each other. In a statement quoted in the program note, Kancheli explains that he chose the text “to remind our contemporaries how relevant, still today, are the age-old problems that have always existed. . . [and] that the gap between good and evil unfortunately continues to grow, despite the greatest advances in civilization.”

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Kancheli sets his compiled text to music full of wild and almost histrionic contrasts. The score quakes with giant blocks of orchestral sound and Orff-like choral exhortations. These are offset by prickly Schnittkean harpsichord licks, tinkling New Age-like percussion, and portentously solemn passages. For this listener, it never added up to more than the sum of its parts. One can at least say, however, that it got a devoted (and enthusiastically received) performance by Nelsons and the orchestra, and by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus prepared by Betsy Burleigh.

In contrast to the Kancheli, Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” reported for carefree duty on Thursday night unburdened by philosophy or theodicy — except, perhaps, in its spirited defense of the sensual pleasures of speed and virtuosity. The Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky was on hand to celebrate both with a bravura technique. The crowd adored his performance and was clearly hungry for an encore, but it was not to be.

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After intermission the evening’s tone shifted markedly. The five-movement Eighth is the bleakest of Shostakovich’s trilogy of wartime symphonies, and it contains a world all its own. In the rousing Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”), the composer had at least ostensibly performed his patriotic service, and galvanized the spirits of his beloved native city during its epic siege. The Eighth came in the summer of 1943, after the German Army had been defeated at Stalingrad and official Soviet spirits had begun to lift.

This time, however, Shostakovich stands apart from the crowd. The conductor Mariss Jansons, a prime mentor for Nelsons, once described the Eighth as inner-directed, sorrowful music that suggests the grave toll of war on the individual psyche. Nelsons clearly shares this view. In just one example from Thursday’s performance, after convening the score’s muscular opening statements, Nelsons turned to the violins and drew out a passage of quiet devastation. The sound was arrestingly hushed, opaque, and redolent of a deep spiritual exhaustion. It seemed momentarily as if the music might collapse in on iself, as if this vast symphonic conflagration, before it had even begun, might be snuffed out by a thimble.

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The next hour-plus held many outstanding solo contributions, among them the roving, consolatory eloquence of Robert Sheena’s English horn, and the sparklingly ironic pirouettes of Cynthia Meyers’s piccolo. The symphony closes with an extraordinary movement, one in which the composer appears to find some measure of hope in the surreal fact of survival itself. Nelsons and the orchestra beautifully conveyed the ways in which this score’s closing pages seem to search for the particular light — wise, resigned, gentle — of the adagio of Mahler’s Ninth. And, fleetingly, to find it.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

At Symphony Hall, March 24 (repeats March 25 and 26)


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy_Eichler.