This highly rewarding program opened with a brilliantly expressive performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony, titled ‘The Age of Anxiety’ after W. H. Auden’s Pulitzer-prize winning poem, an extended narrative that follows four lonely strangers who meet in a wartime New York bar and spend the night mulling over their lives and the human condition. Unanchored to traditional symphonic form, and reflecting the structure of the poem that inspired it, Bernstein’s score is cast in two parts, the first a prologue followed by two groups of seven variations, and the second a series of three movements. The music alternates between being frightening, brash, trite and incongruous, but the most striking feature is the inclusion of an elaborate piano part, on this occasion performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet who delivered a ravishing account.
The piece got off to an excellent start with William Hudgins and Michael Wayne’s plaintive clarinet duet dominating the ‘Prologue’ until Thibaudet took over centre-stage and carried on in a lively partnership with Andris Nelsons. This was especially notable in Variation IV where Thibaudet’s playing sparkled alongside an effectively pointed orchestral contribution. Variation VII, the last of ‘The Seven Ages’ was wonderfully graceful and calm, while Variation IX, a zany waltz, was given with enormous zest. The final Variations stepped up the excitement, but it was in the more theatrical second half of the Symphony that the music became most compelling. After the ardently soulful ‘Dirge’, the quick, jazzy ‘Masque’ – set for piano, percussion and stand-up bass – featured Thibaudet’s most brilliant and dazzling playing.
After intermission came an overwhelmingly intense performance of Shostakovich’s audacious Fourth Symphony, the latest addition to Nelsons’s on-going cycle devoted to the composer. Nelsons’s laser-sharp focus never slackened as he kept the numerous and disparate elements of the sprawling work together. He sustained the expansive outer movements superbly, emphasizing the more ironic and humorous aspects without neglecting the underlying angst. The BSO came through with riveting, exhilarating playing, bursting with energy and brimming with color, making the eerily quiet ending, with its ticking rhythm fading away into uncertainty, especially enigmatic. After the final notes, Nelsons held the silence for nearly a minute.