LENOX — Not even the most violent tempest to rock Tanglewood during a BSO concert in many a moon could overcome the tremendous impact of Shostakovich's revolutionary Symphony No. 4, as led by a hard-driving Andris Nelsons on Friday night with profound conviction and mastery over this imposing, challenging score in its first performance here.
Completed in 1936 as the brutal Stalin dictatorship tightened the screws in the Soviet Union, the symphony was rehearsed in Leningrad but the besieged composer was forced to shelve it under pressure from the regime lest he be branded an enemy of the people. Stalin's media mouthpiece Pravda (Truth) deemed it a betrayal of Communist goals — in effect, fake music.
After bravely declaring that "I don't write for Pravda, I write for myself," the humiliated Shostakovich, who had called the symphony "sort of my credo as an artist," was compelled to authorize a statement disowning it "on the grounds that it in no way corresponds to his current creative convictions and represents for him a long-outdated creative phase" and that it suffered from "grandiosomania." The score finally had its premiere in 1961, six years after Stalin's death.
Nelsons, who grew up in then Soviet-controlled Latvia, knows much about artistic repression. Obviously, this music speaks deeply to him; he has conducted and recorded it with the Bostonians at Symphony Hall and takes in on tour to Europe with the BSO next month.
The symphony ranks as Shostakovich's most innovative, creative orchestral work, requiring an imposing battalion of percussion, winds and brass, along with a super-sized string section.
Opening with a shriek of pain followed by a militaristic funeral march, the work gained from the conductor's and the orchestra's mastery of an unwieldy score. The players emphasized bleak desolation contrasted with mock gaiety, sardonic humor (an off-kilter cuckoo effect in the E-flat clarinet) and roiling full-blast thunderbolts that managed to overpower the sheets of rain pelting the Shed.
Nelsons emphasized the jagged rhythms and discordant, percussive exclamations, and the musicians pulled out all the stops, resulting in a mesmerizing account of the towering score.
Shostakovich attempts a triumphant conclusion that's snuffed out by an unearthly celeste over sustained notes in the bass and cello section, soon joined by strings in a final sorrowful moan that dies away. Nelsons held the silence for a good 20 seconds.
Unfortunately, the prolonged and fierce thunderstorm swamped Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, especially the piano's hushed entrance and the ethereal slow movement. Yefim Bronfman gamely tried to convey this eloquent concerto's crosscurrents of pathos and majesty, but not much could be heard beyond the Shed's front sections, and brief breakdowns of ensemble by the orchestra can be blamed on the elements.
Saturday night's all-Bernstein program, also conducted by Nelsons, offered a probable first for the Shed — a troupe of dancers, and footloose they were, performing the complete "Fancy Free" ballet, conceived and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and composed by the 25-year-old Lenny in 1944.
On a basic yet effective set depicting a wartime bar in Manhattan, Boston Ballet soloists depicted three sailors on a one-day shore leave, seeking female companionship. Dancers Patric Palkens, Isaac Akiba and Paul Craig conveyed the essence of a more innocent time in their solos, boyishly eager as they strutted their stuff for sultry, alluring young ladies Maria Alvarez, Kathleen Breen Combes and Dawn Atkins.
The music is vintage Bernstein, pulsating with nervous energy reflecting the atmosphere of anxious anticipation for an Allied victory. Nelsons kept a close eye on the dancers and the BSO musicians delivered the vibrant score with unstinting virtuosity.
After intermission, the "Divertimento for Orchestra" composed by LB for the BSO's centennial in 1980 proffers an ingratiating grab bag of musical styles ranging from waltzes, mazurkas, a samba, a Turkey Trot and march titled "The BSO Forever." Easy on the ears, and affectionately celebratory.
Latvian-born Baiba Skride, a refined, elegant and stylish player, sounded hesitant in the opening moments of "Serenade (after Plato's Symposium)," a genuine masterpiece for solo violin, strings and percussion that ranks high among Bernstein's most introspective, heartfelt compositions. Sensitively accompanied by Nelsons and the orchestra, Skride's genuine musicianship and virtuoso flair emerged, rising to the occasion and doing more than justice to this 1954 quasi-violin concerto.
I could not attend Sunday's Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert, the season finale for the young players of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. But, as heard at Saturday's open rehearsal led by Nelsons, they performed at the considerable height of their powers in Copland's Outdoor Overture, the run-up to the world premiere of John Williams' suitably spectral "Highwood's Ghost" with Yo-Yo Ma and BSO principal harp Jessica Zhou, Bernstein's Three Meditations for cello and orchestra from "Mass," and Bartok's towering epitaph, the Concerto for Orchestra.