Sibelius and Shostakovich in Amsterdam: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 5th March 2015
Conventional wisdom has for over half a century suggested that Shostakovich’s mighty Tenth Symphony depicts the tyranny of Stalinism, both as a a construct on the evil of society and on the man himself. Whether or not Shostakovich actually wrote the symphony after Stalin’s death (the pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva has said she witnessed hearing parts of the work as early as 1951) this performance with Andris Nelsons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra posed an interesting question: What happens when a conductor born after, and outside, the events which gave birth to such a personal and tragic work seems so intent on revisionism? Great music, of course, can survive an element of re-interpretation - Kurt Sanderling, for example, viewed Shostakovich’s Eighth very differently than either Kondrashin or Mravinsky - but Nelsons' view of the Tenth sometimes felt distinctly lacking in any sense of personal or wider meaning, and occasionally seemed lost altogether.
The huge first movement should make you feel you have travelled somewhere. Nelsons, an accomplished Brucknerian, was certainly aware of the architecture holding the structure together, and the climax had a cumulative power, but as the movement receded towards where we had begun one wondered where the sense of struggle was. In part this movement is an insidious waltz - albeit one that never quite takes the form of a dance - but too often the conductor was caught flatfooted and out-of-step with an historical past, or placing the symphony in one in which it never belonged. He was caught out again in the second movement. Shostakovich marks the score Allegro but Nelsons’ tempo was way off that marking (indeed, at almost six minutes this has to have been the slowest performance I’ve ever heard, in concert, or indeed on record, of this movement). There may well be a convincing argument for making this movement sound so rhythmically balanced and square (it actually felt more like a march), but Shostakovich crams within it a huge amount which was simply glossed over here. The orchestra did indeed begin fortissimo, but Shostakovich then goes on to add a further fifty crescendos (amid only two diminuendos) and at such a glacial pace the evenness of the orchestral dynamics made much of this go missing. The imposing gait simply added to the already tremendous weight of the orchestral sound; what we ended up with was less a portrait of evil and more an adventure in orchestral sonority, less Shostakovichian masterwork, and more brushstrokes in crotchets and semi-quavers.
The third movement risked a lot, and the dividends paid off it should be said. Returning to the failed waltz of the first movement, Shostakovich attempts a second one though it is even more macabre. Resolution is never quite achieved here, the music stumbling over itself in a frantic state of hysteria and mania. In part, Nelsons was much more flexible with his tempi, this being much closer to the Allegretto marking Shostakovich wrote, and the enormous weight of the ‘cellos and basses didn’t feel as uncomfortable (and disfiguring) as they had done in the Allegro. Although this movement for many conjures up Mahler and Das Lied von der Erde the sepulchral horn sound that Nelsons got from the Concertgebouw seemed much closer to Mussorgsky’s tenebrous Catacombs: there was a horror and abject sense of loss here that few performances articulate this well.
The Finale, too, was successful, Nelsons able to replicate the slowness of Shostakovich’s scoring into something genuinely terrifying whilst keeping the music from collapsing into episodic sectionalism. Because the fast music in this movement never really goes anywhere conductors can often seem non-plussed by the lack of resolution to it. Nelsons could have fallen into this trap but instead he chose to bring Shostakovich’s Tenth into a world much closer to Nielsen: snare drums and timpani seemed involved in a battle of wills, defiant against growling, resonant lower strings that came shuddering up from the floorboards. If there had been desolation in the woodwind at the beginning, there was triumphant optimism in the final brass fortissimos.
This concert had opened with Anne-Sophie Mutter as the soloist in Sibelius’ solitary Violin Concerto. Since I last heard Mutter play this work, probably some 15 years ago in London, both her tone and sense of engagement with the concerto have changed markedly. Her sound is huge, so much so that as I listened to her navigate this treacherous work I was often reminded of David Oistrakh. Apart from the richness and roundness of her string sound, she shares with him an unusual ability to confront a work with unassuming honesty. Her peerless virtuosity (and this really was a performance that was technically faultless) allows her to focus on the music and she does so with a sense of engagement and intimacy. Rapid string crosses, up-bowed staccato double-stopping, tonally perfect octave runs, arpeggios and harmonics were all heroic. The sheer size of her tone (especially on the G string which sings so lyrically) does sometimes come at the expense of this concerto’s oft-suggested tundra of chilliness and polar-capped sunlight, but she compensates for a sometimes warmer sound picture by giving the impression of imperviousness and in few performances do you get Tovey’s ideal of a “polonaise for polar bears”. For such a symphonic concerto, Nelsons and the Concertgebouw provided outstandingly rich, sonorous orchestral support. Mutter’s encore was big-boned, luxurious Bach, the Sarabande from the D Minor Partita.
Whilst it would be true to say that Nelsons’ Shostakovich Tenth remains something of an enigma (and very probably a work in progress for this young and immensely charismatic conductor) there is no question that he revels in what the Concertgebouw can do for him. The playing was very special, with fabulously rich strings and brass and woodwind sections other orchestras really can’t compete with. The hall itself gives such beautiful balance and proportion to every section of this orchestra - nothing is ever occluded or overwhelming. A memorable night in Amsterdam!
This concert is being broadcast on Sunday 15 March at 14:15 via NPO Radio 4