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A Russian Evening in Palm Beach

Palm Beach
Kravis Center for the Performing Arts
01/10/2022 -  
Anatol Liadov: Kikimora, Op. 63
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

Yefim Bronfman (piano)
The Palm Beach Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (conductor)

Y. Bronfman (© Dario Acosta)

Clouds of doom hang over U.S.-Russian relations at what many commentators believe to be their lowest point since the depths of the Cold War. But one would never know it from this lavish program of Russian modernist works performed by the Palm Beach Symphony, easily one of the boldest and most innovative orchestras operating today. As Florida’s star rises along with its prudent pandemic policies and favorable financial and quality-of-life advantages, the third most populous American state’s arts institutions are also experiencing a massive boost. The Palm Beach Symphony now livestreams its concerts internationally. Its televised Christmas concert reached 1.2 million viewers.

Billed as “Romantic Rachmaninoff,” the evening opened with a somber, introspective playing of Anatol Liadov’s short tone poem Kikimora. Composed in 1909, it reflects late imperial Russia’s cultural preoccupation with early Slavic myths. As in other countries at the time, interest in myth offered a firm and reassuring concept of nationhood in a world where international competition was becoming a ferocious fact of life spiraling toward the unprecedented destruction of World War I. In Russia, where high culture either benefited from or was burdened by a powerful legacy of Western European influences, rooting new works in the national idiom was enshrined with near fanaticism. For some cultural critics, departing from Russia’s cultural traditions for artistic inspiration was nearly an act of treason. Those who adhered to them, however, enjoyed a panoply of motifs, legends, and tales in which to seek inspiration.

Kikimora is an evil sprite who spins flaxen thread each night with what Liadov described as “evil intentions for the world.” He bears similarities to the Germanic Norns, who appear in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung and also weave threads of fate. But while Norns merely record events as time passes, Kikimora’s ill will for the future corresponded more closely with the apocalyptic currents that coursed through Russia’s symbolist age. Opening with a solo horn, the same instrument that dooms Siegfried in Wagner’s tetralogy, the piece moves to a frenzy of percussive harm. Maestro Gerard Schwarz, longtime director of the Seattle Symphony and the Mostly Mozart Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center, led with a firm grasp of the piece’s emotional energy.

In same year that Liadov composed Kikimora, Sergei Rachmaninoff first performed his notoriously difficult Piano Concerto No. 3. Written on commission in the summer of 1908 for a prospective American tour, it premiered with Rachmaninoff himself playing the piano before a New York audience. A masterpiece demanding the highest degree of virtuosity, the composer did not feel the premiere received quite the critical acclaim he felt it deserved. History, however, bore out his views over those of the tepid critics and his polite but far from effusive first night audience. For professional pianists, a successful performance of “Rach 3” is a kind of holy grail. The 1996 film Shine was devoted to one such quest. When Vladimir Horowitz produced the first full-length recording of it, in 1930, Rachmaninoff was so impressed that he resolved never to perform it again.

In this concert the world famous pianist Yefim Bronfman, who is this season touring the world as Artist-in-Residence at Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw orchestra, delivered the finest performance of the concerto I have ever heard outside of Russia. From the podium, Maestro Schwarz gave him ample space to demonstrate his mastery of the work’s dense textures and vaulting cadenzas with the surety of excellent orchestral support. Bronfman played with crystalline perfection but resisted any temptation to show off with a flashy or insouciant reading. Part of the challenge is to convey with equal credibility the first, “Allegro,” movement’s European harmonies and third movement’s crisper martial tones while bridging them with the Slavic inspirations that drive an adagio movement billed as an “intermezzo.” It is very much a balancing act between the “East/West” dichotomy that Russia itself faced in the troubled first decades of the twentieth century. Can it be any surprise that Rachmaninoff himself emigrated almost immediately after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and died a U.S. citizen in California, leaving instructions that his remains should never be repatriated to Russia?

The concert’s final selection brought the point further. A generation younger than Rachmaninoff, Dmitri Shostakovich was a child at the time of the revolution and remained in the Soviet Union, where his creative gifts were by turns praised and castigated. As Joseph Stalin solidified his murderous rule, Shostakovich’s second and last opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, risked a searing and highly sexualized portrayal of Russian provincial life that grated against the sensibilities of the new proletarian dictatorship. Its denunciation by the Soviet arts establishment, including by Stalin himself, caused the composer to fear for his life as millions of his fellow citizens were repressed for far lesser infractions, or for no reason at all. He withdrew his Symphony No. 4 from performance and withheld another work, lest he find himself accused of being a repeat offender. He composed his Symphony No. 5 through the fraught year of 1937, with the specter of arrest constantly on his mind. Upon its premiere that November, it scored an unexpected triumph with both establishment critics and popular audiences. In a Soviet context, its four sturdy movements suggested the formation of a new personality through adversity – a major cultural goal of the Bolshevik Revolution. Still harried by the arts establishment, Shostakovich was hardly in a position to disagree, and his intentions have been the subject of dispute ever since. Many critics have suspected that the symphony’s themes of “rebirth” were meant sarcastically in defiance of the communist regime, or even as a gesture of reconciliation with it. We may never know, but the emotion that suffuses Shostakovich’s work is undeniably its greatest challenge. Once again, Maestro Schwarz rose to the task with the help of his strong brass and woodwinds and delivered a stellar performance.

Paul du Quenoy



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