If Felix Mendelssohn was the genre-defining master of Romanticism, Dmitri Shostakovich was the master of disguising acerbic expressions against the Stalinist regime—in an agreeable veil of neo-Romanticism. From October 11 to October 13, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) presented a fascinating program that juxtaposed these two composers’ most different works: Mendelssohn’s wildly popular Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s wildly controversial Fourth Symphony.
While Shostakovich was unusually talented at producing works that aligned both to his own artistic conviction and to the demands of Soviet nationalism, this symphony was deemed so dissonant—and thus unable to properly portray the glory of the USSR—that it could not be performed until Stalin’s death, almost 25 years after its intended premiere. The piece is still rarely performed, despite the composer himself having called it his “artistic credo.”
In dramatic contrast, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto was met with immediate critical enthusiasm in 1845, and to this day remains one of the first concertos any violinist learns. For these concerts, the BSO had what must have been the absolute pleasure of supporting German violinist Arabella Steinbacher in her fierce yet graceful performance, which received an extended standing ovation. There were moments throughout when the eager BSO would overpower Steinbacher, no doubt in part due to the physical dynamic limitations of a violin. This minor misfortune served to make that much more impressive Steinbacher’s cadenza, which was composed of technically skillful octaves that successfully highlighted the thematic material.
Principal Bassoon Richard Svoboda had a busy program, as the bassoon parts in both of the pieces play an integral part of the orchestration. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto was the first multi-movement piece without a pause in between: the bassoon holds the final note of the first movement into the beginning of the second. Svoboda’s timbre was ethereal and delicate for the Mendelssohn, and the popular atmosphere of the first part of the concert in no way deterred him from his vigorous performance in the second.
The BSO is still without a permanent music director since James Levine’s resignation in 2011, and we can thank Moscow-born conductor Vladimir Jurowski for bringing Shostakovich’s fourth in all its Slavic glory to Boston. Jurowski’s idiosyncratic style of conducting was particularly apt for the sprawling symphony. Though definitely retrained in form, he exerted immense artistic control over the orchestra with calculated and deliberate movements, not only with his baton but also with individual fingers. He dictated the speed and feel of even the smallest orchestral element, such as the myriad trills of the woodwind section in the second movement.
It was perhaps inevitable that there would be a mishap in a performance of such a demanding symphony. For about thirty seconds in the middle of the final movement, the violin section was noticeably off measure with the percussion section. Let the purist whine! Given how rhythmically complex the symphony is, it is incredible that it only took thirty seconds for Jurowski to bring the orchestra back on track. These thirty seconds were the only ones in which the percussionists were anything but impeccable. Shostakovich was particularly innovative in the scoring of the percussions for this symphony and the section fully honored his vision with dynamically rich and energetic execution.
Though in its second season without a full-time director, the BSO continues to present exciting repertoire befitting an orchestra of its skill and resources. The Mendelssohn and the Shostakovich were both performed with great dexterity, but it was the contrast between the two scores that made for a truly remarkable night at Symphony Hall.
—Staff writer Susie Y. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.