On the international music scene, conductor Andris Nelsons is clearly on a roll. He has come a long way from the days when he played trumpet in the Latvian National Opera Orchestra. In the past season, he completed his contract with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and simultaneously began his tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). His inaugural BSO concert was recently broadcast on television in PBS’s Great Performances series.
Nelsons has been celebrated in a DVD documentary entitled Genius on Fire and in recent feature articles and interviews in Gramophone and BBC Music magazines. To complete his CBSO tenure, he was given the honor of conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall in London in July. Not to be outdone, the BSO gave Nelsons the rare opportunity to conduct Gustav Mahler’s gargantuan Eighth Symphony at Tanglewood Music Center in August. When you lead Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Eighth on two different continents in the space of a few weeks, you’ve arrived as a full-fledged international jet-setting conductor.
Nelsons’s rise to prominence has been so meteoric that he was widely rumored to be next in line to become chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. When that post surprisingly went to the relatively unknown Kirill Petrenko, the BSO responded immediately by extending Nelsons’ contract for three years through 2022.
Crowning all these milestones in Nelsons’s career, he accomplished something unfortunately all too rare these days: He secured a contract with a major label to record with a major American orchestra. Over the next few years, Deutsche Grammophon (D G) will be presenting Nelsons and the BSO in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphonies 5-10.
In a gesture halfway between a marketing ploy and a political statement, D G has labeled the series “Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow.” The world has generally (and unfortunately) tried to forget Joseph Stalin and his regime’s horrors. If it takes Shostakovich’s music to keep alive the memory of Stalin’s brutality, it will be profoundly ironic. Stalin did all he could to suppress Shostakovich’s music, short of killing him—and he no doubt entertained that possibility. As a mere composer, Shostakovich must have wondered how he could ever stand up to the Soviet Union’s all-powerful tyrant. I hope this doesn’t happen, but we may be approaching the point where Stalin will be remembered by the public not for the Gulag and his mass murders but for trying to silence a lone voice of dissent in Soviet music.
The first release in D G’s series highlights the Stalin versus Shostakovich conflict. It pairs his well-known Tenth Symphony with his lesser-known Passacaglia from his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In 1936, Shostakovich was the Wunderkind of Soviet music when Stalin took an instantaneous disliking to this successful opera, which transposes the Lady Macbeth story to a Russian setting. Stalin’s displeasure resulted in an editorial in Pravda entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” that condemned the opera for its modernist dissonance.
With an official party attack on Shostakovich, his career was almost ruined. He was forced to withdraw his modernist Fourth Symphony from performance, and only in 1937 did he begin to rehabilitate his reputation with the popular triumph of his Fifth Symphony. (It is a great symphony—perhaps his greatest—but the music is more accessible to ordinary audiences and thus more in line with Soviet artistic standards.)
Stalin died in 1953 and Shostakovich soon got his revenge on the dictator with his Tenth Symphony. He found a way to give a chilling musical expression to the Great Terror Stalin perpetrated. This brooding, unnerving symphony conveys all the anxiety and fear of the Stalin years, and the frenzied, brutish second movement has been interpreted as a portrait of Stalin himself. In the third and fourth movements, Shostakovich repeatedly sounds the four notes that had become his personal musical motto. As Nelsons says in the C D booklet, “With the frantic repetition of D-S-C-H [the musical notes D, E flat, C, B] I hear Shostakovich saying to Stalin with sarcasm and irony: ‘You are dead, but I am still alive! I’m still here!’ ”
Nelsons was born in 1978 in Latvia, when it was still under the Soviet Union’s iron fist, and he claims an affinity with Shostakovich as a victim of Communist oppression. Nelsons attributes his understanding of Shostakovich’s music in its Soviet context to his “connection to the conducting tradition there in St. Petersburg, his hometown, where I studied.” Nelsons’s grasp of Shostakovich is evident throughout this impressive new CD.