Condemned To Repeat Itself
Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls
04/14/2003 - 03/31/03;04/07/03;04/11/03
Errki-Sven Tuur: Exodus
Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Alfred Schnittke: (K)ein Sommernachtstraum
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto # 3
Gavril Popov: Symphony # 1
Sergei Prokofieff: Piano Concerti Nos. 2 & 4
Mikhail Glinka: Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 1, 6 & 10
Vadim Repin (violin)
Alfred Brendel, Gary Graffman and Alicia Gabriela Martinez (pianos)
American Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Jarvi, Roberto Abbado, Leon Botstein and Otto-Werner Mueller (conductors)
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
Fifty years after the death of Stalin (and Prokofieff), it is amusing to look back at the variety of views of history from the Soviet era. Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony # 10 just after the despot’s demise, in the period known to contemporaries as “the thaw” (in typical Russian meteorological fashion, it turned out to be only a partial one), and responses to its content were kaleidoscopically broad. Thinking about the piece the other day, I pulled three recordings off my shelf at random and found the liner notes explaining the “meaning” of the work in three completely different ways (the consensus seems to be that it is either pessimistic or optimistic). What is missing from this trio of interpretations is the idea that Shostakovich’s chronicles were less about the fate of nations than the destiny of one individual.
What distinguishes this master’s symphonies is their concentration on the narrator (the frenetic nature of the first, with its evocation of the composer’s experiences of playing the piano at a silent movie house, establishes a lifelong, biographical emotional content culminating in the fifteenth and last symphony which quotes from many of its predecessors). Like Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond, neither the identified protagonist nor the era is the central character; it is the writer who emerges. Shostakovich’s mature works are not only macro descriptions of world events, like Prokofieff’s Nevsky; they are also the plangent cries of one persecuted animal (only someone who was actually there could have so powerfully written the siege of Leningrad sections of the 7th ). Of course, all historians, from Tacitus to Blitzer, impose some personal comments onto their discourses, but nowhere is the line blurred so successfully as in Shostakovich: one may think of the 10th as a condemnation of Stalinism, but actually it is all about one unappreciated, diminutive, sickly man hiding his autograph DSCH (d, e flat, c, b in German notation) in the score and freezing his genius off in a drafty Petersburg flat.
I. Baltic Night
“Where are the positive ideas in this symphony?”
Paavo Jarvi has proven to be the best catch of the recent trawling for conductors by major American orchestras. While audiences in New York and Cleveland have been disappointed, those in Philadelphia uneasy, and Boston just impatient, the residents of Cincinnati have taken great pride and pleasure in welcoming such a dynamic and results-oriented maestro to their oldest symphony hall in the nation. Nurtured in a great tradition since birth, but still young enough to challenge it, Mr. Jarvi has made his mark decisively and with great panache. The orchestra has never sounded better and presents interesting and varied programming on a regular basis. Demonstrating deep commitment, Jarvi has just signed a contract extension that lasts until 2009.
One of his unique qualifications is his closeness to a contemporary movement otherwise unheralded on these shores. Like his father, Jarvi feels a deep kinship to the music of the Baltic region and is personally involved in its current propagation and husbandry (perhaps it is no coincidence that the other most exciting large ensemble in the States these days is the L.A. Phil, led by the young Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen). As a fitting curtain raiser to an exploration of the darker side of the aurora borealis, maestro began with a New York premiere by fellow Estonian Erkki-Sven Tuur, who was on hand for this superb rendering of his anxious music (decidedly of the Herrmann-Hitchcock school). The piece may have been repetitive and built around only one large crescendo, but no one could quarrel with its eloquent presentation.
I like my Sibelius dark (my favorite is the Fourth Symphony) and so was in my glory listening to Vadim Repin interact with this energetic group. Truly dug in like anteaters, the strings burrowed down to a level of severity and depression that was almost too much to bear. Jarvi encouraged this heavy accenting, himself exhorting with fists and crouches the deep violins, sounding for all the world like violas, as they tore through the staccato parts to uncover the throbbing emotional core of this most introspective of concerti. Repin was magnificent, dignified and strident, stentorian and yet delicate, impassive in soldierly stance but producing a heartmelting vibrato when appropriate. This was simply spectacular musicmaking.
Sir Georg Solti used to use the allegro from the Shostakovich 10 as an encore when his Chicago Symphony toured in Europe. I still cannot fathom how they could perform it with so much adrenaline after an already exhausting evening, but there it is, guaranteeing a wild audience response. The danger of excerpting one movement is that over time it becomes the signature of the work, outshining its sister sections to the exclusion of the shape of the whole (this happens quite often in Shostakovich: the eerily similar allegro non troppo of the eighth, the finale of the fifth, the bullet-riddled opening of the seventh). Perhaps the greatest aspect of this particular Cincinnati effort was the overall architecture of the entire edifice, the poetic first movement expansive in its landscape, the neurasthenic third section as fragile as a spider’s web and yet as tightly coiled as a rattlesnake, the final pages grand and forceful, dripping with tears. The allegro itself was thrilling, not perhaps as fast as some versions (although close on the radar gun), but extraordinarily precise and moving. The conductor acknowledged many individuals in the prolonged ovation afterwards, but the biggest roar of all was for the orchestra as a body. I used to travel to Cincinnati on a regular basis. A recent peek at their new season makes me think that a return visit would be highly rewarding.
This was a most intense and uncompromising concert, exploring the depths of the soul. It seemed fitting to walk out of Carnegie Hall one hour before the advent of April and be greeted by spring snow.
II. Smells Like Teen Spirit
“I regard the First Symphony as the first chapter of a book where you know that a great drama will unfold.”
Fascinated with film, Alban Berg created a surrealistic scene in his opera Wozzeck based on the disjointed rhythms of the silent screen as translated by the lone piano player who helped guide his audience through the overwhelming images still considered revolutionary when the work premiered in 1925 (there is a contemporary parallel experience in the effects of music videos on the younger audience). At the exact same time, 19-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich was completing his amazing First Symphony using a similar device, except that Berg had never actually sat in the cinema pit night after night, expected to create extemporaneous accompaniment for novice theater goers. Shostakovich relates that he enjoyed his employment at the flicks, being especially fond of Buster Keaton, and surely there is a humorous side to the frantic piano playing in this multicolored orchestral opus, but there is also the unmistakable feeling of intense pressure, the same sort of askew biorhythm which would pursue Berg’s antihero to suicide. Even while still a student, Shostakovich’s lifelong inclusion of personal details in his music had begun.
The same sort of nervous energy is conveyed by Alfred Schnittke in the clever piece which opened this second program. A stately harpsichord theme is bandied about the ensemble, ala Britten’s Young Person’s Guide, but begins rather quickly to take some wrong turns, going down alleyways which lead to dissonance and anxiety. The monsters encountered are more of the Sendak species than the Bosch and the overall feel is only mildly nightmarish, but the similarity to the Shostakovich to come is unmistakable, right down to the inclusion of the piano buried within the orchestra. The ensemble had good fun with this work and enunciated extremely well, even in the double forte passages.
If one accepts the Januarian nature of the Piano Concerto # 3 of Beethoven, then Alfred Brendel is looking squarely at only a single face. Appropriate for such a scholar of Viennese Classicism (with a very big “C”), this performance was delightfully mannered and perfectly balanced, hardly ever speaking above a mezzo piano. Brendel’s pianism is exquisitely delicate and what it may sacrifice in pinpoint accuracy it more than compensates for in formal poetry. Personally, I prefer the insistent, incipient romanticism of the piece, but this granitic approach is nice too.
What struck me this night about the Shostakovich I, in the capable hands of Roberto Abbado (he’s the nephew), was that one can hear the persecution loud and clear (a combination that only a superb orchestra like the Philadelphia can communicate without loss of intonation) long before the composer’s life turned into political spectacle. Particular details from this excellent reading include the magical duet between former and current concertmasters, the harried, put-upon play of the imbedded pianist, the eloquence of the timpanist (who received the biggest individual ovation afterwards) and the intensity of the juxtaposition of the “Oriental” theme with the surrounding musical material in its exciting reprise. I have not always appreciated Maestro Abbado’s contributions in the past, but this evening he was in firm command; it was heartening to watch an ensemble that actually heeds its leader, Abbado’s gestures for quietude instantly translated into brilliantly understated orchestral sound. Rhythmically this was a star turn, every percussive effect handled flawlessly. Even the teenaged Mozart can’t top this!
III. What Do I Do For An Encore?
“I think even the most fastidious critics won’t have anything to pick at.”
For me, the pinnacle of Shostakovich’s achievement is the recreation of Bach’s purity and unity as represented by the 20th century composer’s sets of preludes and fugues for piano modeled on the 18th century’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The put-upon Russian often sought solace in the mathematical beauty of the logical German, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the disproportionately long slow first movement of the 6th. Almost a return to the womb, the comfort of tonic and dominant, leading tones resolving to the warmth of the nest, this symphonic essay seemed to be a confirmation of the composer’s ultimate desire to be a contributing force to the artistic mainstream. Ironically however, not only did Shostakovich find himself misunderstood and maligned once again, but posterity has assigned to the 6th a considerably lesser role than its mates, its position between the mighty 5th and 7th analogous to that of the Beethoven Fourth, what Schumann once described as “a fair maiden surrounded by giants”.
Rescuing forgotten masterpieces is the forte of Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra and so it was no surprise that they would present this neglected orphan as the finale of their evening exploring the role of external politics on internal artistic thought. What was a genuine surprise, however, was the important unearthing of a significant statement, the Symphony # 1 of Gavril Popov, an ancillary character in the early life of our Dmitri. Not simply a curtain raiser for its more famous sister pieces, this ambitious and deeply moving large landscape provided us all with a supreme example of what is best about the entire Botstein experience: a great work lovingly presented by dedicated musicians. Memorable moments in this electric performance included an extremely beautiful and lyrical cantabile theme in the largo, assigned to the rarely heard E Flat clarinet, impressive fugal passages of mysteriously dubious tonality in the first section, and a rousing finale of hysterical fervor. The ASO certainly gave its all in pursuit of this particular imagery, reminiscent as a whole of the first movement of Shostakovich’s 4th. Popov, apparently spending virtually all of his creative abilities on this one work, fashions a complex and communicative part for no less than nine percussionists and seemed to be under the same Mahlerian spell as his more famous colleague. The direct communication between ensemble and audience was thrilling (and even a bit overwhelming) in this marvelous rendition and the loud cheers of the crowd emphasized the scandal of this being the U.S. premiere of a work completed in 1934.
Rudolf Serkin needed two good hands to function as president of the Curtis Institute of Music, but Gary Graffman has been able to do the job efficiently with only one. Specializing for fifty years now in the two great left hand concerti, he is as close to an authority in their performance as is left alive in the new century. He certainly did not disappoint, providing a profound master class on the subject of touch and its necessary variations, his single set of digits so much more eloquent than so many of his colleagues’ double-barreled attacks. Most impressive was his palette of color and the wispy delicacy of his phrasing, culminating in the final dignity of a seed-bearing spore of a question quietly lost in the void, less weighty perhaps but eerily similar to the final pages of the last Beethoven string quartet or the faded conclusion of Mahler’s Lied von der Erde. The piece is a bit of a miniature (after all, it takes only half the time of a two-handed concerto) and, sandwiched as it was between the two Gargantuan symphonies, it exhibited at least a familial bond with the Shostakovich to come.
The orchestra flagged a bit in the final work. This was an extremely draining concert, longer than the norm on its face and then augmented by an introductory performance of the allegretto from the Beethoven 7 as a testimonial to a recently deceased philanthropic friend of the ensemble. Although there were some ragged moments, the realization of Shostakovich’s vision of cohesion was still admirably presented, the slightly askew waltzes of the middle section as quietly iconoclastic as those of Tchaikovsky, a predecessor who hid his rebellions even further under the mattress. As a whole, this was an extremely revelatory concert: I would be out and about today seeking further scores by Popov if I had not been forewarned that this amazing initial effort stands alone atop his particular mountain.
IV. Gaudeamus Igitur
“I don’t understand anything. Of course the work shows great talent, but I don’t understand it.”
Certainly it is exceedingly rare for a student to compose so complex a work as this remarkable First Symphony. Haunted by neurasthenia but bubbling over with spirit, it is perhaps the most eloquent example of teenaged angst in the literature. It seemed only natural that an examination of this piece by the Juilliard Orchestra would be appropriately revelatory. The evening began on a high note with a wonderfully life-affirming version of the tuneful Glinka overture, the strings bright and sparkling, the propulsion strong and energetic. The proceedings took on an even more exciting provenance as we were all treated to the major debut of a significantly talented and mature performer. Alicia Gabriela Martinez is the same age now as Shostakovich was then and exhibited a brand of pianism which presented a strong case for her inclusion into his particular category of precocity. The good news for pianists about the Prokofieff concerti is also the bad news: the composer wrote them all (except, of course, for the left-handed one) as vehicles to feature his own extraordinary talents. This is great if one is up to the task, the long cadenzas and showy arpeggiated sections extremely splashy, but the down side is their ferocious difficulty. Prokofieff was a relatively tall man, although not a giant like Klemperer or Rachmaninoff, but he was blessed with inordinately large hands and had little sense of the limitations of lesser pianistic lights. To communicate these big canvasses effectively requires qualities which Ms. Martinez, a native of Venezuela, possesses in spades.
What was most impressive about this soloist was her audacious courage (certainly not learned at overly cautious Juilliard). The proud owner of an extremely strong left hand, Ms. Martinez was willing to take all of the risks necessary for an extremely powerful first movement realization. This was not simply hitting all of the notes; this was forceful epic poetry. She executed like a champion, with a “Rubinstein reach” that sometimes landed her in inner voice trouble, but that always stood her in good expressive stead. This concerto is the least performed of the five and one listening easily gives clues as to why it is avoided by many otherwise fine practitioners. This is music making without a net, exciting, even breathtaking, when it works as well as it did for this superb aspirant this night. Further, it seemed that Ms. Martinez was the leader of this rendition, egging her colleagues on to greater heights of expression, the snarling of the high brass and the signature ironic bottom of the bass trombone and tuba grappling in some prehistoric tundra fight. The pianist set her own standards very high, whizzing through the notorious scherzo virtually flawlessly and enunciating the poetry of the intermezzo with an expressive touch beyond her years. I have been fortunate to hear hundreds of student performances in my lifetime; this was the best by far that I have experienced since I became a critic. If one word could sum up this reading it would be “confident”. Remember this name: Alicia Gabriela Martinez.
Perhaps it was the contrast of this electrifying reading or maybe I was simply spoiled by the memorable version by the Philadelphia Orchestra just heard, but I felt that the performance of the youthful Shostakovich I by this particular group of young players was dull and lifeless. The ensemble never seemed to grab hold of the work and the conductor appeared to be content with this enervated version. Some fine solo passagework, especially by clarinetist Gilad Harel, could not rouse this performance from its somnolence, the overall impression being that this particular teenager wasn’t really suffering too badly after all. This is the American conservatory at its most harmful: students are taught that the gingerly approach is the best. The most insidious factor in the entire process is its grandmotherly and “practical” emphasis. Students are victimized like Kafka’s inmate In the Penal Colony, only the message carved into their backs is:
Frederick L. Kirshnit