Saturday, May 04, 2013

Concert report, take 2

I was web surfing today and ran across -- excuse me? Oh. Right you are. I threatened yesterday to describe the National Symphony Concert, but got carried away venting my spleen about the Kennedy Center. That's no small feat, if I say so myself, since I have only a vague idea where my spleen is located.

First on the program was the Elgar Cello Concerto, perhaps the most sadly beautiful or beautifully sad piece of music I know. It surely ranks among Elgar's four or five greatest works, and that's saying something. I have several recordings of it: Isserlis/Hickox, Mørk/Rattle, Starker/Slatkin, and of course the classic du Pré/Barbirolli. Probably others I can't recall at the moment.

The soloist in this concert was Alisa Weilerstein. I had never heard of her before, but from my perch in the third row from the stage I had a good visual and emotional connection with her performance. Weilerstein quickly convinced me she is in the first rank of today's cellists. Her understanding of Elgar's sensibility was obvious, enhanced by bowing that produced some marvelous coloration (without going into eccentricity). A wonderful experience.

Following the intermission we had the pièce de résistance -- Shostakovich's Symphony no. 5. I've heard it many times on recordings but it always amazes me, and listening from row 3 to an orchestra of musical overachievers playing it live is thrilling.

The backstory of this symphony is well known. Shostakovich in the '30s had worked for years, I believe, pouring his lifeblood into the phantasmagorical Symphony no. 4. Even before its first performance, it was slammed in no uncertain terms in a review in Pravda, an early version of the Washington Post. Shostakovich withdrew it, and the symphony was not heard in concert until 1961.

Shostakovich had every reason to despair. At best, his music would never be played in the Soviet Union. If Comrade Stalin were in a humorous mood, the composer might have been separated from his family and sent to a Siberian labor camp to chop logs in sub-zero temperatures. As far as I know, no musician was ever hauled to the Lubyanka and shot for writing an unacceptable score, but Shostakovich could not have known that at the time.

The Fifth was his bid to reform himself (in the eyes of the authorities); he even described it as "a Soviet artist's response to just criticism." Astonishingly, he pulled it off -- it was received enthusiastically, yet is still is permeated with his unique musical personality. 

The Shostakovich Fifth is a masterpiece, and to be able to hear it in a splendid live performance was a privilege. The orchestration is equal (in a different way, of course) to such masters as Ravel and Mahler.

Part of why it was accepted by the Soviet Establishment was the thrilling, almost euphoric finale that they believed symbolized the inevitable triumph of Soviet Communism over all enemies. Ever since, critics and musicologists have debated about its meaning. Many insist that the apparent celebration is hollow and ironic, a secret message of dissent.

No doubt a skillful conductor can create that impression, but I don't think it was Shostakovich's intent. The stakes were too high. He knew this would be his one chance to redeem himself. The commissars were vicious but not altogether stupid, and the slightest hint of ambiguity might have put paid to Shostakovich's musical career permanently. 

Conductor Christoph Eschenbach didn't seem to think the finale was a coded protest either; he had it played straightforwardly, which was powerful enough, like the entire piece. It probably didn't hurt that many of the orchestra musicians had played for its earlier conductor, Mstislav Rostropovich. "Slava" wasn't a distinguished conductor, but by general consent he had a special insight for Shostakovich, whom he had known personally, and had played the premiere of his Cello Concerto no. 2.

This is the second time I've attended a concert in which Eschenbach led the orchestra of which he is the music director. I'm impressed with him. He seems committed, musically intelligent, and able to communicate his ideas to the orchestra. I have no idea why he and the Philadelphia Orchestra parted on a sour note, but it's hard to imagine it was over his talent. More likely some personality thing or getting on the wrong side of the musicians' union.

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