LIVING, BREATHING BRUCKNER
- Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig continue their critically acclaimed Deutsche Grammophon Bruckner cycle with Symphonies Nos. 6 & 9
- Double-disc album also includes Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Prelude to Act I of Parsifal
- Grammy Award-winning conductor brings rare lightness and lyricism to Bruckner’s mighty scores, backed by sensational orchestral playing and recorded sound
Andris Nelsons’ revelatory readings of Bruckner’s symphonies are permeated by his understanding of the many contradictions within the composer’s character – not least the opposition between an essential awareness of his own talent and the insecurity that compelled him to rework his scores again and again. Set for release on 3 May 2019, the latest title in the Latvian conductor’s ongoing cycle for Deutsche Grammophon, performed with his Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, prefaces Bruckner’s Sixth and Ninth Symphonies with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Prelude to Parsifal respectively. Light and dark, triumph and tragedy, life and death coexist here in a state of uneasy tension, resolved but never reconciled.
Bruckner’s symphonies are a minefield of multiple versions, confusing revisions and clashes between manuscript and published sources. Nelsons has opted to follow Leopold Nowak’s critical edition for these performances. The Sixth Symphony (1879-81), notable for its structural economy and clarity, was one of Bruckner’s favourites among his own works. Much of the work is striking for its dynamism, but at its emotional centre is the dark and troubled Adagio, whose music, as Nelsons observes, anticipates the soundworld of Mahler. While the Sixth was written within two years and spared from later revision by the composer, Bruckner laboured on his ninth and final symphony for much of the final decade of his life. Nelsons has followed convention to perform the Ninth in its three-movement form. The closing Adagio echoes the rising melody of the so-called “Dresden Amen” in homage to Wagner, who made prominent use of the theme in Parsifal.
As he told Gramophone in April 2018, Nelsons is determined, above all, “to show Bruckner the human being, with all his doubts, obsessions, as well as Bruckner the man who is very religious and lives according to certain strong rules, and how that sometimes conflicts with and sometimes fulfils his approach in his music.”
The Gewandhausorchester players bring the ambiguities inherent in Bruckner’s scores vibrantly to life. The composer is in the orchestra’s collective DNA. It embraced him when it gave the world premiere of his Seventh Symphony in 1884 and made history again soon after the First World War by performing the first complete cycle of his nine symphonies. “The Gewandhausorchester’s ability to play this music is very special”, says Nelsons, “there’s a sensitivity and intimacy that I like very much.”
He and the orchestra are now preparing to perform Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony at home in Leipzig (9, 10 and 12 May) as well as in Madrid (22 May), Tokyo (30 May) and Beijing (8 June). Their focus will then turn to the Eighth, which they will perform at some of this summer’s festivals – Rheingau Musik Festival (22 August), Lucerne (25 August) and Salzburg (28 August) – and then in Cologne (2 September), Essen (3 September) and Leipzig (5 and 6 September).
Andris Nelsons launched his Leipzig Bruckner cycle in May 2017 with the composer’s Third Symphony. The project continued with the release last year of albums devoted to the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies. “If anybody doubts that a conductor can have a far-reaching influence over an orchestra, this disc is a good place to start,” wrote the Financial Times (London) of the Fourth, while The Times (London) praised Nelsons’ lyrical phrasing in the Seventh, “important for generating the momentum that stops Bruckner’s quirky musical architecture freezing into separate blocks”.
MUSIC OF FEAR AND RESISTANCE
Andris Nelsons and Boston Symphony Orchestra continue their critically acclaimed Under Stalin’s Shadow series for Deutsche Grammophon
Double-disc set of Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos.6 & 7, Suite from the Incidental Music to King Lear and Festive Overture to be released on 22 February 2019
Album follows conductor and orchestra’s recording of Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos.4 & 11, nominated for 2019 Grammy Awards
The story of Soviet music-making and the complex creative choreography it demanded from Dmitri Shostakovich is the inspiration behind Under Stalin’s Shadow, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s revelatory series of albums for Deutsche Grammophon conducted by its Music Director Andris Nelsons. Their latest recording, set for release on 22 February 2019, presents Shostakovich’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies together with the composer’s Suite from the Incidental Music to King Lear and the Festive Overture. Its predecessor, a compelling pairing of the Fourth and Eleventh Symphonies, has been nominated in the Best Orchestral Performance and Best Engineered Album, Classical categories for the 2019 Grammy Awards.
Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra are no strangers to success at the Grammys. They won the 2016 Best Orchestral Performance Award with the first release in Under Stalin’s Shadow, featuring performances of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony and music from his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and repeated the achievement the following year with their album of the Fifth, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, and the Suite from Hamlet.
Both symphonies on their latest release date from a time of war, as does the incidental music from King Lear also included here. Nelsons sets the tone for his new album, whose contents were recorded live in concerts at Boston’s Symphony Hall in February, April and May 2017, with a deeply unsettling account of the Sixth Symphony’s opening movement. He and his Boston musicians cultivate a sense of danger from the music’s darkness, which only magnifies the subsequent irony of the second movement’s triple-time dance and the edginess of the finale. Their interpretation of the Seventh Symphony mixes dignity and menace, nostalgia for a lost world of peace and rage at the mechanised slaughter of civilians.
The Sixth Symphony was completed in September 1939, the month in which Stalin, then allied to Nazi Germany, sent his Red Army to invade eastern Poland. Shostakovich’s music for King Lear, first heard in Leningrad in March 1941 as part of Grigori Kozintsev’s visionary staging of Shakespeare’s play, evokes imminent catastrophe. Three months after its premiere, Hitler’s forces stormed Russia’s western borders, cutting deep into Soviet territory. Shostakovich remained in Leningrad during the early months of the Nazi siege, volunteering to serve with the auxiliary fire brigade. In July 1941 he began work on his Seventh Symphony, directing his first-hand experience of the city’s suffering into its music. He completed the score’s defiant finale following his evacuation in October and dedicated the score to “The City of Leningrad”.
For Nelsons, the Seventh Symphony conveys a warning about the threats posed to human life, culture and artistic expression not only by Hitler but also by Stalin, and indeed by tyranny in general. “The Seventh is, in part, an expression of Shostakovich’s deeply felt patriotism. While accepting that the Soviet Union was not perfect, he recognised himself as a Soviet artist and felt the need to defend Leningrad as a cultural centre and to protest against the horrors it was enduring at that time. There is ambiguity in this music, however – the hope of victory against external forces is perhaps tempered by anxieties about home-grown repression.”
The climate of fear in Stalinist Russia had gripped Shostakovich as it had so many members of the intelligentsia. He had fallen from grace after Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was denounced in an infamous Pravda editorial headlined “Muddle Instead of Music”. “Shostakovich had to deal with such a challenging life being accused of Formalism after Lady Macbeth,” Nelsons told Gramophone in April 2018. “He was one of the most [prominent] composers of his time and then the next day he was the biggest enemy of music in the Soviet Union. It must have been a terrible shock for him and he had to survive, still writing music. So, he developed this double or triple life, with so many ways of fooling the authorities.”
Although the composer created his Festive Overture in 1954 to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution, it’s therefore tempting to imagine its jubilant brass fanfares and galloping string themes as a celebration of Stalin’s death the previous year. On the latest release from Nelsons and the BSO, it provides a striking contrast with the darker tones of the other three works recorded.
Andris Nelsons was born in November 1978 in Riga, capital of what was then the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia. Lenin and the dogma of dialectical materialism still governed the school curriculum and society was still haunted by a sense of fear, even if times had changed considerably since the period of Stalinism experienced by Shostakovich, whose music he grew up listening to on records in the family home and began playing at the age of five or six.
The Boston Symphony’s Shostakovich tradition also runs deep. The orchestra gave the Boston premiere of the Sixth Symphony on 20 March 1942 under Serge Koussevitzky at Symphony Hall. Koussevitzky then gave the American concert premiere of the Seventh Symphony with the Berkshire Music Center Orchestra at Tanglewood on 14 August 1942, in a special performance to raise funds for Russian War Relief, following that with an extended series of Boston Symphony performances of the Seventh at home and on tour that October, November, and December. “For me, as Music Director of an orchestra with such a great and rich tradition, it is important to continue [that] tradition,” comments Andris Nelsons, “but also to take care that each concert we perform is equally important and that we give 100 per cent of our inner emotional world or heart to the pieces we play.”