Going into 2023, the Boston Symphony Orchestra had played Brahms’s Fourth Symphony 457 times. You could imagine BSO patrons might have had enough of the piece by now, but for No. 458 on Thursday, under music director Andris Nelsons, Symphony Hall was pretty well filled for a cold, windy January evening. It should be noted that the orchestra hasn’t programmed the Fourth in Symphony Hall since November 2016, and that a six-year gap between Boston performances of this symphony is by far the longest in the BSO’s history.
The first half explored less familiar territory: a BSO-commissioned world premiere, Steven Mackey’s Concerto for Curved Space, and a piece the orchestra has played exactly four times (all in one 1992 week from Gidon Kremer and Seiji Ozawa), Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2, with Latvian violinist Baiba Skride. The concertos run about 30 minutes each, meaning that Thursday’s concert ran well past the two-and-a-half-hour mark.
Concerto for Curved Space is a bold, ambitious work, and though the Second Violin Concerto is one of Shostakovich’s neglected offspring, I think it’s a masterpiece. (Then again, I think most of Shostakovich’s compositions are masterpieces.) As for Brahms’s Fourth, there’s a reason BSO audiences keep coming back to hear it — especially when the performance is Thursday’s.
You might expect a piece called Concerto for Curved Space to have a backstory, and it does. A physics major in college, Mackey writes in his program note that he’s “moved to create by pondering the mysteries of the cosmos.” His first orchestra piece, he says, was The Big Bang and Beyond. He describes Concerto for Curved Space as “a fantasy that revels in the space for imagination that lies between our curiosity and our perceptual limitations. . . . The piece is in four parts, each more expansive than the preceding — with rough timings of 3’+5’+8’+13’ respectively (the similarity to the Fibonacci series is entirely coincidental).” As for the title, he says that the music which begins the piece, “the one batch of material that does return and return frequently, is the most literally ‘curved’ because of the microtonal inflections in and out of a symmetrical harmony. In my mind it is a portal to another (musical) dimension . . . or maybe it is the hum of the universe.”
Mackey’s orchestra includes piccolo, alto flute, cor Anglais, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, and tuba, plus the kind of percussion array — cowbell, jawbone, bongos, crotales, kenong, flexatone, claves, and all the usual suspects — that no contemporary composer seems able to do without. I suppose it’s hardly reasonable to expect a composer to venture into outer space without every instrument at his disposal. (Well, almost — the traditional outer-space instrument, the Theremin, gets left back home.) And Mackey has very specific ideas about how to use his resources. At one point in the draft version of the score, the timpanist is instructed to drop two tennis balls from a few inches above his drum to produce the indicated dynamic. At another, Mackey recommends a percussionist turn his snare drum upside down to facilitate contact with a crotale. On several occasions players are advised not to worry about synchronizing with their section or their stand mate.
The movements marked “Introduction (Portal/Fanfare),” “Points,” “Circles,” and “Sphere” thus move from one dimension to two and then three. The opening direction of the draft score reads “Dark, groovy” — not an instruction BSO members regularly see on their music stands.
Mackey came on stage Thursday to give a brief introduction, explaining that he wanted “to celebrate the virtuosity of this magnificent orchestra” and noting that his piece is in the tradition of BSO commissions like Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Mackey’s Concerto for Curved Space started with a bang underlined by tuba, timpani, tam-tam, and crash cymbals, but it didn’t propose to go anywhere in a hurry. The universe honked, there were brass fanfares, and a few melodic phrases emerged, voyagers heading into the unknown. Space turned out to be, as we expected, polyrhythmic. The lower strings suggested a theme, but that’s when the “Introduction” stops dead.
“Points” exulted in exotic, multicultural percussion; the winds came to the fore, after which there was some chimy chugging, the orchestra looking round in wonder. “Circles,” however, settled into an elephantine dance rhythm, large and graceful and swinging and incorporating, of all things, a harp solo. A brief excursion into something like 4/4 (Mackey’s more unusual meters include 4/2, 9/8, 12/8, and 20/16) had the winds suggesting the loneliness of space; then the elephants returned. Steven Ansell’s solo viola tried to drive “Sphere” forward; the rest of the strings seemed weary, uncertain, surrounded by cosmic percussion. Eventually a chorale developed, grounded in pizzicato strings, as if Bach were the music of the spheres. The universe danced, the brass rejoiced, bells of benediction rang out and subsided into something like “steady as she goes.” A final burst of solarity from the brass heralded a triumphant climax.
All this was not easy to digest on a single hearing, though Thursday’s audience seemed taken with it, and Mackey came back out on stage at the end to show his appreciation. I do wish his essay had offered more structural signposts. At the beginning of “Sphere,” the draft score told me to expect “Passing Nebulae” before the chorale started up. Otherwise I’d have hardly known they were there. What did register was Nelsons’s leadership; even when the music was on impulse only, it never drifted.
I’m not sure why the Shostakovich concerto isn’t more popular. Even recorded versions are few and far between. Shostakovich had intended it as a 60th-birthday present for David Oistrakh, for whom he had written his First Violin Concerto. Either the composer got his dates wrong or he worked faster than he’d expected; in the event it was ready for Oistrakh’s 59th birthday, and he duly gave the premiere in 1967 and made the first recording. Most of the recordings that have followed were made by soloists who are not household names: Wolfgang Rösch, Linus Roth, Dmitri Sitkovetsky, Lydia Mordkovitch, Gidon Kremer (with Ozawa and the BSO), Maxim Vengerov, Sergey Khachatryan, Frank Peter Zimmermann, and Alina Ibragimova. That might not be a complete list, but it’s close. Shostakovich wrote the Second in C-sharp minor, which is not the most congenial key for a violinist; he might have been thinking of Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet, or perhaps Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
The Second also suffers by comparison with its less conventional older brother. Shostakovich’s four-movement First Violin Concerto has an arresting Nocturne for its first movement and a mesmerizing Passacaglia for its third. But the three-movement Second, a conversation between soloist and elements of the orchestra, is hardly less original. Shostakovich’s orchestration makes do with double winds, piccolo, contrabassoon, four French horns, timpani, and tom-tom. (I point that out not as a criticism of Mackey but as a reminder that inner space can be as intriguing as outer space.) It’s been suggested that the composer made use of melodies from Odessa, Oistrakh’s Black Sea birthplace; the Second’s themes do have a folky street feel.
The cellos and basses start off the opening Moderato with a moody four-note figure in 4/4 that immediately shifts to 5/4; the meter will keep shifting, Shostakovich’s 2/4, 3/4, 3/2, 4/4, 5/4, and 5/8 keeping the music, and us, from ever settling. Solo violin embarks on a melancholy reflection over muttering strings and the occasional acknowledgment from the winds and horns. The violin soars upward, becomes insistent, almost accusatory; the orchestra sympathizes and soothes. Chirpy winds, spooky horns, and pizzicato strings take up the second subject, where the skeletal violin suggests late Mahler, perhaps the second Scherzo from the Tenth Symphony. The development turns into an increasingly frenetic forced march, with unpredictable accents from the tom-tom, that culminates in a cadenza where the violin exorcises its frustrations. Calm returns in the recapitulation, with solo horn playing the violin’s original theme in a gesture of solidarity and understanding, and then the second subject marches off in ghostly pizzicatos and tom-tom beats.
The violin starts the Adagio with a mournful nine-note melody that’s no less beautiful for being so simple; solo flute replies with a countermelody, as if recounting its own sorrows. The horns and winds comment as if to say, “I know what you mean,” “I was there,” “There was a midnight knock at my door as well.” After another intense cadenza, this time over timpani, the violin reprises both its original theme and the flute theme, and as it begins to sink into despair, solo horn once again takes up the original theme and, with the orchestra, transports it into an almost religioso C-sharp major. That triggers the rondo finale, where a three-note back-and-forth between violin and snarky horns sends everyone off on what’s part demonic dance, part Keystone Cops chase, part flight from the secret police with the thought perhaps of escaping to the circus. The horns whoop, timpani and tom-tom get enthusiastic, there are echoes of the Rondo-Burleske from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and the orchestra, gathering its full forces, gives the soloist a break before the final cadenza, a demanding 150 bars that lasts almost three minutes and revisits the concerto’s every emotion. Then it’s back to playing hide-and-seek with the secret police. My money’s on the circus.
Back in February 2013 and again last February, Skride played Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with Nelsons and the BSO and her performances of both concertos will be part of the orchestra’s Shostakovich cycle for Deutsche Grammophon. I haven’t heard her No. 1 but I’ll look forward to hearing No. 2 again. Nelsons’s initial tempo was very Moderato and the opening string ostinato sumptuously molded, and Skride was intimate in her narrative, almost shy, as if afraid of being overheard by unfriendly listeners. Oistrakh’s seminal recording, with Kirill Kondrashin, had the Moscow Philharmonic very much in the background. That was not the case here; Nelsons placed soloist and orchestra on an equal footing, and to judge by the score that may be closer to what Shostakovich intended. The orchestra trudged, as if it had concerns other than listening to Skride, or soloist and orchestra would talk over each other. Skride grew impatient, her tone turned whiny, not an inappropriate response. Eventually the orchestra quieted and let her speak, and she danced delicately through the second subject. Her cadenza wailed with grief; then Richard Sebring’s otherworldly solo horn ushered in the recapitulation and the skeletons marched off.
Skride’s Adagio was even more heart-rending, as if to say, “I haven’t told you the worst.” Clint Foreman’s solo flute joined the lament, the strings took up the threnody, and Skride soared higher and higher in unsentimental keening. Then for the movement’s middle section, she reset in a lower register, as if trying to be more objective in her tale. She was hushed in her return to the main theme; she took up the flute melody and made it her own, then was a spectator for the final 15 measures as Sebring and the orchestra offered a ray of hope. The rondo finale didn’t quite dance with the devil. Skride’s cadenza, with its anguished cries and ferocious double stops, was a multifaceted summing up, but the good-natured overall approach didn’t convey the desperation with which Shostakovich thumbs his nose at Soviet authority, at repression in general, and finally at death itself.
Oistrakh’s premiere recording checked in at around 29 minutes. Most subsequent versions have gone a little slower; at some 35 minutes, Skride and Nelsons were slower still. I thought Skride made good use of the room she was afforded; she seemed immersed in Shostakovich’s sensibility and hardly aware of the audience. Only the last movement could have had more momentum. There was no encore Thursday, I presume in deference to the length of the evening.
Brahms completed Symphony No. 4 in 1885, at a time when the composer was feeling pessimistic about the future of European culture and anxious about his own mortality. An autumnal work of reflection and perhaps regret, it begins seemingly in mid-walk, an E-minor trudge through chill gusts and swirling leaves that keeps descending in thirds. The sweeping second theme, in B minor, is a kind of Fate motif; the French horns that suggest nearby hunters are no less ominous for being in B major. The Andante moderato, ostensibly in E major, is actually in the Phrygian mode; poised at its organ-like outset between C major and E minor (belief and doubt?), the movement seems to have wandered into one of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s great Gothic cathedrals. With the boisterous, almost Bacchanalian C-major Allegro giocoso, we find ourselves at a harvest festival; this scherzo-like piece, in 2/4, dances like a polka. The passacaglia finale, the composer’s inspiration for the entire symphony, is a theme and 30 eight-bar variations, Brahms having derived the theme from the final chaconne of Bach’s Cantata No. 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich.
At about 44 minutes, Nelsons’s interpretation Thursday felt even more expansive than November 2016 one included in the BSO’s boxed set of all four Brahms symphonies. He lovingly sculpted the opening moments, as he had in the Shostakovich; the first subject benefitted from his affectionate logic and thoughtful paragraphing. The second subject, where I hear Fate intervening, could have been less deliberate, though it took on flavor from the acrid winds and clarion brass. As the exposition winds down, we expect it to return — after all, Brahms’s first three symphonies have first-movement exposition repeats—and for a few measures, we hear everything exactly as it was in the beginning, but then the music goes in a different direction, and we realize we’re in the development. It’s Brahms’s little joke; Nelsons, playing along, looked as if he were trying not to smile. The development itself proceeded with a fresh, Slavic energy and low-key drama; the recapitulation harvested ripe fruit, but again the second subject felt static, and the coda didn’t suggest the heroic rebellion I sense from the score.
Nelsons’s Andante seemed to echo, of all people, Bruckner, the Andante quasi Allegretto from his Fourth Symphony, brightly colored and rising to a hymn of Thanksgiving before the lullaby consolation of the second subject. The recapitulation added Elgarian nobility to Brucknerian reverence; the coda was highlighted by John Ferrillo’s solo oboe and William R. Hudgins’s solo clarinet. The Allegro giocoso was a jolly, mock-heroic affair; the second subject can get lost in the bustle, but it didn’t here, and neither did the “Poco meno presto” section that sounds like the beginning of the trio you’d expect in a scherzo but turns out to be just a brief transition — another Brahmsian joke.
The finale brings with it an interpretive riddle. The time signature is 3/4 up through Variation 11. Variations 12–15 are in 3/2, and Brahms indicates that crotchet = crotchet. Variation 16 returns to 3/4, with no new tempo indication. Conductors traditionally take Variations 12–15 at a reduced tempo, believing that by changing the meter to 3/2 and indicating that the crotchet speed should remain the same, Brahms is asking them to half the tempo. In his November 2021 performance with the Boston Philharmonic, however, Benjamin Zander maintained his original tempo for those four variations, arguing that if Brahms had wanted a tempo change, he would have asked for one.
What’s Brahms up to here? If he had written Variations 12–15 in 3/4, they would, at the original tempo, run twice as long as the other 26 — which I think is what he intended. But in that case, they would have taken up 16 measures each, which would have spoilt the overall eight-bar pattern. Changing the time signature solved the problem. Written in 3/2, Variations 12–15 take up eight bars each, but they contain twice as much music as the other 26 and therefore run twice as long — at the original tempo. At a slower tempo, they last longer still, which seems un-Brahmsian. As Kelly Dean Hansen observes in his detailed analysis of the Fourth, “Although these variations [12–15] seem to be at a slower tempo, in actuality the bars are simply twice as long. Brahms specifically indicates that the speed of the notes should be the same.” Certainly Zander’s November 2021 interpretation of the movement made a strong case for this view.
Nelsons, as best I could judge, slowed a bit, but his cogent phrasing kept those four variations moving, and in No. 12 he got a really lovely flute solo from Elizabeth Klein. He did justice to the movement’s variety of emotions, from meditative and dreamy to agitated, suspenseful, spooky, sportive, stoic, even apocalyptic. The drama builds to the coda, which Brahms directs to be “Piú Allegro”; Nelsons didn’t seem to follow that instruction, but he made these closing pages sound tragic and heroic all the same.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.