The opening program for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-2017 season was all-Russian, and even without any Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, or Rachmaninoff on the bill, it was a memorable evening, as BSO music director Andris Nelsons offered a fresh perspective on works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Mussorgsky.
The opening flourish was Shostakovich’s six-minute “Festive Overture,” which he wrote in 1954 for a concert at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The piece, which he’s reported to have composed in just three days, is bookended by fanfares; in between, a theme from the composer’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District” and the influence of the Overture to Glinka’s “Russlan and Ludmilla” are both palpable.
Last year’s Grammy-winning recording of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony from Nelsons and the BSO reveled in clarity and complexity. This “Festive Overture” reveled in extroversion, but not at the expense of clarity. The initial fanfare showed off the rich BSO brass. Thereafter Nelsons had the music racing as if he were accompanying a “Road Runner” cartoon; at times it all sounded like a good-natured parody of John Williams in epic mode. In the closing fanfare Nelsons brought out the composer’s sly references to tsarist Russia. The piece was a splendid way to open any orchestra’s season.
The soloist for Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto was Chinese superstar Lang Lang, whose performances can be (a) flabbergastingly virtuosic; (b) weirdly idiosyncratic; (c) loud like Bang Bang; (d) all of the above. This one was actually (e) none of the above. Well, it was technically flabbergasting — what Lang Lang performance isn’t? — but tempos were moderate and the approach was thoughtful and atmospheric, as is the case in Lang Lang’s 2013 recording with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Saturday’s performance, however, was more imaginative than the Berlin recording, and Nelsons has to get at least some of the credit. The opening battle between piano and orchestra became kaleidoscopic, with carefully considered dynamics and phrasing. The quintessentially Prokofievian gavotte that begins the second-movement Theme and Variations went more briskly than usual, but Lang Lang got ample room to ruminate in the famous fourth variation, and he didn’t abuse the opportunity. Here and in the luxuriant second theme of the Allegro ma non troppo finale he waxed very Rachmaninoffian, which might not have been to all tastes. I did miss the insouciance — one could almost call it insubordination — of my favorite recordings by William Kapell and Martha Argerich. Still, this was a disciplined, thoughtful performance, nothing flabby or self-indulgent about it.
I wish I could say the same of Lang Lang’s encore. If something had to follow the concerto, it might at least have been Russian. Instead, he played the First Intermezzo by early-20th-century Mexican composer Manuel Ponce, a salon piece that flattered neither his sensibility nor his technique.
Ravel’s 1922 orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s 1874 piano solo “Pictures at an Exhibition” has held sway for nearly a century, and with good reason. It might not be as Russian in feeling as, say, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s version, but Ravel had great respect for Mussorgsky’s writing. His is a sophisticated arrangement, more nuanced than the piano original, full of glissando and portamento and flutter-tonguing, and some inspired instrumental choices: alto saxophone for the troubadour of “Il vecchio castello,” tuba for the Polish ox cart of “Bydlo,” muted trumpet for the whining Schmuyle of “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.”
Nelsons and the BSO gave this piece the best performance I have heard in some 50 years of listening. The opening Promenade had the gravitas that was withheld from the Shostakovich; it was for once an interesting walk, and not just because of the alternating 5/4 and 6/4 time signatures. The subsequent Promenades seemed to anticipate the pictures that would follow: you could hear “Bydlo” creaking, and then the stentorian Goldenberg.
Overall, the performance ran just 34 minutes, which is not excessive, and yet it enjoyed an unusual degree of air and color and drama. “Il vecchio castello” swayed like a gentle barcarolle; you could almost see the old castle reflected in the water. The children of “Tuileries” argued whimsically; “Bydlo” started softly and slowly but built to a mighty climax. The Trio of the “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” sauntered and strutted; “Limoges,” given space to breathe, exploded with marketplace gossip; “Con mortuis in lingua mortua,” a Promenade in everything but name, was delicately calibrated without being self-conscious. “Baba-Yaga,” inspired by a witch’s hut on hen’s legs that’s also a clock, was the more kinetic for not being taken too fast. Its nightmarish climax evaporated into the serene magic of the “Great Gate of Kiev,” where Nelsons underlined the rhythms and harmonies of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. The spaciousness of the final pages was justified by the size of the reading. I hope the BSO was recording it.
THE BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA LED BY ANDRIS NELSONS
Andris Nelsons, conductor. At Symphony Hall, Sept 24. Repeats Sept. 30 (Shostakovich and Mussorgsky/Ravel only)
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.