From The Finland Station
03/07/2002 - 03/08/02 03/09/02
Anatoli Liadov: Kikimora
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerti Nos. 1, 2 & 3
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony # 4
Yefim Bronfman, Leif Ove Andsnes and Dmitri Alexeev (pianos)
St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Yuri Temirkanov (conductor)
“Let’s drink to life not getting any better.”
From a personal and artistic point of view, the worst aspect for Shostakovich of the regime of Joseph Stalin before the start of World War II was not the misery of the Russian people, the arrogance of those in power, or even the internecine pogroms, but rather the enforced optimism of the propaganda machine. Poor Dmitri was always being second-guessed by the dictator who, for better or worse, took a direct interest in the classical music of his gigantic nation. Stalin’s criticism ranged from articles in Pravda to threats of exile and even extermination and Shostakovich’s finest work of the period was either formally denounced (the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District) or silenced (the Symphony # 4, not premiered for 26 years until long after the despot’s death). It is probably no exaggeration to state that the composer’s life was only spared because of his ability to churn out upbeat scores for the Soviet agitprop film industry. As living conditions worsened, the government, officially informing the people that their existence was improving daily, expected their most famous composer to produce ever sunnier scores. Not wanting to compromise himself or his integrity, but having a family to support, Shostakovich hit upon the device of sarcasm to both express his innermost feelings and stay at least on the fringes of the good graces of the administration. Three major examples of his underground protest survive in symphonic form. The 9th is raucous, even banal, taking the wind out of the sails of the victory over Hitler (he really got in trouble for this one). The 11th, supposedly commemorating a great populist victory in 1905, is actually a thinly veiled excoriation for the brutal invasion of Hungary. But his masterpiece of obfuscation was the Symphony # 5, which describes the extreme emotional anguish of the people under the thumb of domestic Fascism, but was praised by the Stalinists as the misguided composer’s return to the fold (everyone seemed to “get it” except the Commissars).
Shostakovich’s political problems were exacerbated by his ill luck in having his masterpieces premiered by Russian orchestras. Stalin’s famous headache, which caused him to exit the opera house early during the first night of Lady Macbeth and led to his denunciation of “formalism in music” in the next morning’s newspaper, might never have developed if the brass hadn’t been so ugly, the woodwinds so shrill. However, this seems to be a cultivated trait, still hanging about from Soviet days, even in the ensemble so carefully nurtured by Mravinsky. Certainly, the Petersburghers are a far superior band to the Kirov, but their overall sound is still jarring to Western ears. Interpretively, this 5th was a disaster, the constant tinkering with phrases simply precious. The largo should have been the welcomed respite from the nails on the blackboard brass (the players are forgiven because one recognizes that this is the tradition, however I began to dread their entrances) and yet this movement was so limp and colorless as to disappoint in an entirely different way. The music has the potential for incredible tension (when Rostropovich conducts it, he sees the composer’s suffering face looming before him) but all was lost in a vague sort of haze. The final allegro was taken much too fast at the outset, turning the previously fine string playing into a muddle of slurs, and then slowed down to the level of the plodding much too early, creating no opportunity for a dramatic contrast for the normally powerful ritardando ending, all of the exposed brutality swallowed in a trudge of exhausted soldiers.
I have never really taken a shine to the Rach III, having found it meandering throughout and, in spots, merely bombastic (although I must be the only serious music lover on the planet who detests the Tchaikovsky I as well), but five curtain calls surrounding a tremendous standing ovation confirmed my opinion that Yefim Bronfman certainly played the stuffings out of this work. Beginning with a surprisingly soft statement, this highly talented and seriously communicative pianist wove an unhurried tapestry of purely sonic development (I think of the musical logic of this piece as basically incoherent but Bronfman was still able to grow it timbrally) that was illustrative of his great technical abilities and projected dramatic sense. Here the orchestra was far more than satisfying, the accompaniment almost exclusively lush string writing, designed to enclose the ivory tinkling of the soloist (Rachmaninoff himself) in the most luxurious folds of velvet. Had the orchestra ended the evening here (and after a colorful Liadov snapshot) the concert would have been first rate. Unfortunately, I left the hall a bit worried about tomorrow: if the same ratio of beautiful Rachmaninoff to grating Shostakovich applies, the proportion of time will be heavily weighted (approximately 20 minutes to one and a quarter hours) to the challenging side.
“Maybe I am not an intense interpreter of this kind of music, but I am sure I can conduct it very simply with love and honesty…”
Arturo Toscanini, June 1942
For almost all of my life I have been an ardent appreciator and collector of historic performances. These golden recordings offer more than simply the opportunity to hear the great artists of the past or the authentic input of the composers themselves. There is also an historic connotation to many of these events, a provenance if you will, which distinguishes them from their competition. Hearing Furtwaengler conduct at the old Philharmonie which would soon be destroyed or listening to Dennis Brain announce that he would only play one encore and that it would be a work by Marin Marais because “it is the shortest piece I know” an hour before he would die in a fiery crash are experiences whose mood magnifies beyond any writer’s puny words. But of all of these gems, my own particular favorite is the NBC Symphony broadcast of July 19, 1942, the first performance outside of Russia of the new ”Leningrad” Symphony of Shostakovich (Toscanini also gave the Carnegie premiere of the piece a few months later with the New York Philharmonic). This radio program crystallized anti-Fascist feeling around the world more powerfully than a hundred speeches of FDR or Churchill. Aired while the city was still under siege, it is a testament to the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
The score was microfilmed in secret and smuggled out of Russia by air and auto first to Teheran, then Cairo and finally New York. As the inhabitants of Leningrad ate rats and snow and tried to stave off the Nazi hordes, the world learned of their desperate plight through the supreme power of art. No one who heard this broadcast live was unaffected (this may have been the concert which inspired Bartok to acerbically parody the piece in his Concerto for Orchestra). What amazes even today is the depth of the interpretation: no other performance has the actual feel of bullets and battle like this naturalistic reading.
As a whole, this second concert was far superior to the first. Leif Ove Andsnes burst onto the stage like a Grucci firecracker, his immediate enunciation defiantly declamatory and powerful. He blossomed like a firework as well, the multicolors of his interpretation illuminating the night sky and leaving us all awestruck. Andsnes is the best of the current crop of pianists in the young adult class and he continually impresses this reviewer with his steely fingerings, elastic tempi and heartfelt (as opposed to heart on sleeve) communicative ability. The work is not as crowd pleasing (or manipulative) as the 3rd and so this young Viking did not receive the same overwhelming adulation of the crowd as did Bronfman the night before, but he did leave them wanting more with a gently moving encore (I believe that it was one of the later Lyric Pieces of his countryman Grieg, but don’t quote me).
If any orchestra can put over the ”Leningrad” Symphony, it jolly well had better be this one. Temirkanov solved his sonorous problems by turning this gigantic work into an essay on eloquent string writing, establishing from the first notes the dominance of his skillfully blended section over the more suspect winds and brasses. There were, however, still reminders of the crass with which to deal. During the oboe solos in the first movement, I couldn’t help but think of those poor ducks on the Neva who must have been eaten during the siege, but overall the strains (quite literally) of the blown instruments were subsumed by a cultivated inevitability of horsehair and catgut. Back in my student days, I learned hands-on that the two most difficult pieces for the snare drummer in the entire literature are the Ravel Bolero and this opening descriptive music because they each require the seemingly endless repetition of the same rhythmic figure with no variation of accents (although each constitutes a slowly developing crescendo). To play the same music over and over again without any ornamentation is virtually impossible (try tapping a simple figure with your fingers and see how long you last) but, of course, this is the composer’s image of relentlessness incarnate. The two men this evening stumbled badly at the approximate midpoint but were suitably articulate (as was the entire ensemble) in the early pianissimo. The performance in general was a highly emotional one, even reaching the cinema verite intensity of the Toscanini at certain points. The oft-neglected finale (like the ”Moonlight” Sonata, this piece is famous for only the first movement, even though most of the jewels are buried further in) was extremely well played (with the caveat of ragged intonation in the brass), however, I felt that the adagio was not deeply rooted or particularly well developed. Perhaps this conductor is simply more at home in the flagrantly strident and brilliantly colorful.
“You will begin to write your concerto; you will work with great facility; the concerto will be of excellent quality…”
Dr. Nikolai Dahl to Sergei Rachmaninoff
Dr. Dahl’s mantra, repeated ad nauseam to Rachmaninoff under hypnosis, successfully cured his famous patient of his alcoholism and at least sent his chronic depression into temporary abeyance. The composer’s self-confidence, however, still needed a great deal of work and he debated about publishing only the second and third movements (which he initially performed as if they were the totality) of his new concerto after having second thoughts about the value of the first section, which was destined to become his most popular movement and arguably the most recognizable and beloved piece of twentieth century classical music (it just barely qualifies, being published in 1901). Like the Symphony # 4 of Mahler, written at exactly the same time, this is the composer’s most sensitive and delicate orchestral writing, the blending of colors indescribably exquisite. The transfer of melody from flute to clarinet at the beginning of the second movement, which Mahler would later reverse in the last measures of the andante of his own 6th Symphony, stands out as one of those frozen moments of inspiration and execution almost beyond human comprehension.
That moment was indeed beautiful in this performance, the more burnished timbre of the clarinet at first only barely perceptible in the listener’s consciousness. In fact, the entire slow movement was well played by both orchestra and pianist, although each had a different agenda. This reading was heavily flawed by an obvious dichotomy of interpretation between soloist and conductor that was not assuaged with generous rehearsal time (although Mr. Alexeev was a substitute for Zoltan Kocsis, there were several months of advance notice). Seldom were keyboard and ensemble in sync, Alexeev stopping several false starts an instant before consummation. He appeared nervous and fidgety throughout and not always in command of his musical memory, at one point inventing an interesting flourish that Rachmaninoff might have actually considered adding to the score had he ever thought of it. This was also a pallid reading, the outer movements undistinguished and prosaic. Regular readers of these pages may remember a rather amusing period of time for me with this concerto when I could not hear a satisfactory performance for love nor money. This tepid version would have fit nicely within those frustrating evenings.
Shostakovich wrote fifteen symphonies, but none so able to capture an audience’s heart as the Tchaikovsky 4. Maestro Temirkanov reached deep down into his bag of tricks for this one and produced a wonderfully wrapped early Easter present that was the delight of all in attendance. After the initial shock of the tinny trumpet fanfare, this rendition settled in and was surprisingly and joyously satisfying. Particularly memorable was the andantino, one of the loveliest movements in all of Russian music. It was a bit droll to hear that gorgeous theme played so flatly, in both senses of the word (odd that the instrument whose tuning did not match the rest of the group was the oboe), only to reappear so ravishingly in the celli, but this was the only bump on an otherwise shining path. The pizzicato section was notable for its subtle interchange of melody, the tune bouncing from subsection (it is written for divided strings) to subsection in an extremely delicate and not excessively showy manner. The orchestra nailed the glorious finale while playing at a heart-pounding rate of speed that not only never flagged but also did not engender any raveling of accuracy or intonation. This movement never fails to elicit a strong crowd response and so the entire series ended with a hearty demonstration of fan appreciation. At the end of all three days, a good time was had by all.
Frederick L. Kirshnit