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Bernstein and Shostakovich: unvarying privilege, invariable fear

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/11/2018 -  & March 22, 23, 24, 27, 2018 (Boston)
Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety”
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No.4 in C minor, op. 43

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor)

A. Nelsons, J.-Y. Thibaudet (© BSO Archives)

For the first of the three programs than Andris Nelsons brought with his orchestra to Carnegie Hall, presented were two works named “symphony”, though only the second could really qualify as such. The first of the two, written by the 31 year old Leonard Bernstein, bears the title “The Age of Anxiety”. It is not all that apparent that one can recognize a real symphonic form in this six-segment illustration of Auden’s poem. Thus, it occurred to me that – as much as I love that Shostakovich symphony – that a better work to present alongside the Bernstein and a more logical choice would have been a different Shostakovich symphony, such as No. 12, which, like the Bernstein, is not a symphony per se, but rather a song cycle bearing a title; in this case “Babi Yar”. Just a thought...

One could ask what similarities there are between the two works heard at Carnegie, for there couldn’t have been more different careers than the ones of Shostakovich and Bernstein. Clearly apparent was the ghost of Mahler, a composer admired/adored by both the American and Russian, hovering over the stage. The last pages of both scores bring that tormented Viennese master to the fore. Bernstein was, of course, deeply influenced by the author of the “Resurrection” Symphony and his enthusiasm brought Mahler closer to American audiences at a time when his works were not as popular or as often performed as today. Mahler’s influence on Shostakovich is also apparent and if several symphonies bear that influence, perhaps none other does as much as No. 4, whose last pages almost seem to be a tribute.

Bernstein’s work was presented as a part of the “Bernstein at 100”, a huge worldwide celebration worldwide of the 100th anniversary of this great American idol birth. It is interesting to read Bernstein’s own preface to his Symphony No. 2 for it is so much Bernstein: over the top and then some! “Auden’s fascinating poem began to affect me lyrically when I first read it in the summer of 1947 (it was not surprise for me that after two readings our composer was able to recite the whole 100 pages of it by heart - RM). From that moment, the composition of a symphony based on The Age of Anxiety acquired a compulsive quality. ... I imagine that the conception of a symphony with piano solo emerges from the personal identification of myself with the poem. In this sense the pianist provides an autobiographical protagonist... If the charge of
“theatricality” in a symphonic work is a valid one, I am willing to plead guilty. I have a suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theater music in some way...” Etc.

Typical of Bernstein scores, there are moments of utter beauty such as the duets of winds that open the Symphony and reappear later in the score. Even in this relatively early work, one can see the composer’s sure hand in orchestration and mastery of the form: the themes appear and reappear in different guises, we have inventive variations and in the penultimate section “The Masque”, the use of the sounds of the 40’s, composed as a tribute to a virtuoso jazz riffs. The piano part was written with himself in mind, as he was the first performer of the work with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the very same ensemble we heard at Carnegie. It is demanding and has a number of virtuoso “licks”; that fact only proves that Bernstein, who was also a piano major at the Curtis Institute, could have probably held a candle to any of his famous colleagues who made careers only as pianists.

This performance, with the valuable collaboration of the excellent pianist and long-time exponent of Bernstein’s score Jean-Yves Thibaudet, was the third one in the span of a month: I was also fortunate to catch another one in Poland just last month and there at the piano sat Krystian Zimerman, known as a one of Bernstein’s favorite pianists and also a leading advocate of this score. The score has slowly grown on me, which is not to say that I would qualify it as a masterpiece. We meet, on the pages of this work, quite a few other composers and I wouldn’t be surprised if the composer didn’t borrow from others knowingly. The closing section “The Epilogue”, quite different from the original 1949 version (and much more bombastic), is almost akin to the closing pages of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, but on the way we meet Stravinsky, Hindemith (both in the use of counterpoint and thematic material from his Viola Sonata), Copland, then Art Tatum in “The Masque” segment, and a few others.

A thought occurred to me regarding the performance of this work: it may sound like a dismissive remark, but given the quality of the orchestra and conductor plus the excellence of the pianist one could almost take for granted that the combination itself will provide for more than a satisfactory performance. Here at Carnegie, much more than in Warsaw with its brass blaring and covering the piano, we heard gorgeous wind playing, sweet sounding strings, well balanced brass and last but not least idiomatic pianism provided by the ever dependable Thibaudet. He produced a nice, ringing sound in the more reflective, rhapsodic moments and the jazz inspired sections showed the ease of a professional jazz pianist: that didn’t come as a surprise since in the past he has recorded jazz influenced albums of music by Ellington and Bill Evans.

After the intermission came time for one of the most troubling but also fantastic scores in Shostakovich’s œuvre. This symphony, begun in 1935, was in the process of being rehearsed for an upcoming performance in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in the fall of 1936 when after a several rehearsals Shostakovich was informed by the Soviet officials that not only the performance will be called off but he has to make an announcement by himself. That was a result of the previous attacks on the composer by Stalin’s henchmen after the Vozhd (Leader) decided that he didn’t like the new opera Lady Macbeth. The fate of the composer was hanging on a very thin thread: 1936 was not a time to displease the “authorities”, who could reward a resisting or stubborn author with years of prison, if not worse. Thus, this symphony did not receive its premiere until the end of 1961, when the originally lost score had to be restored from surviving parts used for the original rehearsals. This huge symphony, lasts about 65 minutes and in size is surpassed only by the famous “Leningrad” Symphony (No. 7), is cast in three movements of which the two outer ones are of Mahlerian lengths. Shostakovich called it originally his “sort of credo of my work as an artist”, and in a way one may understand why in the mid-30’s it was incomprehensible to the more traditional ears of the apparatchiks. It is not easy to follow the form, especially in the lengthy first movement which lasts almost half an hour and where many different themes, motifs and ideas are introduced and developed, often in a fugal manner; however, some material is simply introduced and later abandoned. The second movement (Moderato con moto) is in triple time and modest in size (less than 10 minutes). It features a four-note motif and develops in a most typical Shostakovich style: sardonic, terse and with a chamber-music clarity. (That type of writing and style often resurfaces in his other post-war symphonies and quartets.) In the last movement Largo-Allegro, the composer oscillates between grandiose and most intimate, introducing a march that, if not for the orchestration, could come from Mahler’s hand. The most poignant, probably not only for me, are the last pages of the symphony, where in the lower regions of the orchestra we distinctly hear the dying heart-beat (similar to Mahler’s Ninth) and then once again the march motif where the dissonant tritone (interval of an augmented fourth) appears in a manner that could be almost mistaken for Mahlerian writing. Incredibly moving, uncertain, indefinite and also beautifully described by one Russian musicologist as “ a question posed to eternity that was destined to remain unanswered”.

This symphony calls for the utmost virtuosity from both orchestra and conductor and on Wednesday night we luckily had both. Nelsons knows this music and conducts it with a manner of near-nonchalance: left hand on the rail of conductor’s podium and right hand directing his ensemble. The performance was delivered with beautiful colors and textures from the winds and magnificent climaxes that never strained the ensemble. Often, Shostakovich goes from the most violent fragments involving the whole massive ensemble to the most transparent, with chamber music clarity. Nelsons knows this music, and is currently recording with this formerly “Russian ensemble” (during the reign of Serge Koussevitzky) all the Shostakovich symphonies. When the recording of this work finally appears, don’t be surprised to see me in the front of the line of buyers!

Roman Markowicz



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