This week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program is long on substance and short on flash. It has no concerto, no virtuoso hijinks, and not even a conductor on its first half. Yet it may also have a better chance than most of lingering in one’s memory.
Mozart’s sublime “Gran Partita” makes up the first half, and Shostakovich’s haunting Fourteenth Symphony makes up the second. The two works could hardly hail from more contrasting sound worlds. The Mozart, a showcase for woodwinds, glows with the sustaining warmth of a late-summer afternoon. The Shostakovich has no woodwinds, and traffics in far chillier terrain. Based on settings of 11 poems on the subject of death, the Fourteenth is a harrowing symphony of songs.
On Thursday night, a program insert stated that because Andris Nelsons had arrived in Boston this week with a bad cold, he would be conducting the Shostakovich but not the Mozart. The “Gran Partita” Serenade, however, is the kind of chamber-like piece that does just fine without someone waving a stick, and the BSO wind players, who also performed this score in 2014 without a conductor, responded gamely. With the exception of a couple of passing moments in which one detected a slightly hard-edged quality to the full-ensemble tone, this was a lovely, limpid performance — alert to the music’s courtly charms yet also to its soft radiance and that special Mozartean gleam that illuminates these slow movements as if from within.
The Fourteenth Symphony, by contrast, breathes the air of a very different planet. This is an extraordinary late work, written from a hospital ward by a composer who sensed time was slipping away. Even its concise scoring for an orchestra of fewer than two-dozen strings and percussion hints that Shostakovich will be saying more with less. Musical ideas, as in Beethoven’s late works, are distilled to their essence.
We hear this from the very opening moments of its first song, “De Profundis,” which the violins introduce with the sparest ribbon of sound. The music seems to have arrived from a great distance, and seems as if it might trail off at any moment into silence. On Thursday night, judging by the large amount of rustling in the hall, the audience took some time to settle into this aesthetic of precariousness. But onward we went.
The symphony’s musical reflections on death, as refracted through its 11 poetic texts — by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke, and Wilhelm Küchelbecker — are as varied as the poems themselves. We hear music of terror, defiance, grim fascination, even boredom. A long history of war and tyranny hovers behind these notes and is carried forward by the composer’s choice of poets. Religious consolation is scarce but a sense of compassion in this music runs deep. So does its unearthly beauty.
The night’s soprano soloist, Kristine Opolais, appeared to have a couple of shaky moments early on but otherwise sang with a coolly lustrous tone and at times a fierce dramatic intensity, bringing a quasi-operatic sense of character and drama to individual songs. The young Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk, stepping in after Bryn Terfel withdrew, citing vocal fatigue, sang with a large, flexible and sonorous voice, though with a less clearly projected sense of the expressive arc and inner life within each song.
For his part, Nelsons masterfully drew out the character of each movement, from the dark-silver lyricism of “The Suicide” to the claustrophobia of “At the Santé Jail,” which contains a riveting, dryly macabre interlude in which strings are directed to play “col legno,” with the wood of their bows. The movement “O Delvig, Delvig!” movingly elides vast distances of time and space to honor the bond one artist can forge with another “in happiness and sorrow.” This song brings us Shostakovich at his most expansively generous. The Fourteenth is dedicated to Benjamin Britten, whose music he once called “the most important phenomenon of the 20th century.” Thursday, as the bass’s solo line rang out, Nelsons drew surgingly expressive playing from the lower strings, a kind of riptide of tonal warmth. It was one of the evening’s many memorable moments.
Two years before completing his Fourteenth, Shostakovich unsuccessfully attempted — no fewer than 10 times — to set Pushkin’s poem “I Have My Monument.” This poem posits, perhaps too baldly, the writer’s own art as a monument that outlives his life. With the Fourteenth as a whole, Shostakovich implicitly voiced this sentiment by other means. The Pushkin poem was not ultimately among his chosen texts, but neither do its words seem distant. “In a cruel age I sang the cause of freedom,” Pushkin wrote, “and for the fallen called for mercy.”
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Feb 3)
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com