Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Concerto # 2
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 1
Gidon Kremer (violin)
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)
The Symphony # 1 of Gustav Mahler was premiered in America by the composer-conductor on the Carnegie Hall stage in 1909. This week it received two very different performances on that same stage as the Juilliard Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra attacked its colorful exterior and dense interior. Of course, no amateur ensemble, no matter how talented, could possibly outperform arguably the best orchestra in the United States. Right?
Well, surprisingly, and in an elemental way, that is exactly what transpired. Certainly the Philadelphians outshone their young colleagues in terms of pure sound and consistency of intonation, but interpretively there was little contest. The aspirants, under the baton of James DePriest, delivered an electrifying account of the piece (previously reviewed in these pages); the professionals could offer up only a precise but dull exercise.
I have said it before: the music of Mahler is simply not a good fit for maestro Christoph Eschenbach. There is nothing wrong with this; every conductor has a bent towards one composer or another, one school or national sound is their forte, others are best kept unheard. However, Eschenbach has recently launched a complete cycle of Mahler symphonies that may strain the limits of brotherly love over his tenure down the expressway. Although not as objectionable as his recent reading of the 3rd (I was out of town for the 10th), this lifeless, metronomic 1st exhibited this particular podium leader’s Germanic sense of regularity rhythmically trampling over the subtler points in the music. This rendition was remarkable for its discipline, every note struck at just the right moment, every tempo prescribed, every hair in place. The resultant performance was perfectly correct, and therefore all wrong.
Certainly there were moments of great beauty, especially that duet between the first two violins in the third movement, when current concertmaster David Kim and co-concertmaster William de Pasquale combined for an absolutely otherworldly sound. But overall there was little or no sense of orchestral elasticity, no rubato, no proper (or, in terms of in your face ethnicity at a time of minority repression, improper) contrast between the Jewish and the Viennese, little melodic expressivity, no breathing room. Eschenbach even conducts his rests with broad parade gestures. There are many fewer opportunities for conductorial excess in this symphony than in the 3rd, but, sure enough, this preener found and exploited them for purposes of self-aggrandisement, although anyone who allows the horns to stand at the conclusion of this refulgent work can’t be all bad.
Mahler, in his broad harmonic language and panoramic sense of symphonic scope, is said to have been a profound influence on Dmitri Shostakovich. The Violin Concerto # 2 is indeed a derivative work, but the composer that inspired it was…Shostakovich. The most shameless recycler of his own works since Rossini, the aged and somewhat infirm composer established a veritable cottage industry of reworked pieces, each effort sounding more and more like the last (by the time of the final symphony, he simply inserts long “quotations” from his prior works and even an arrangement of the William Tell Overture). In this particular case, the urtext is the Cello Concerto # 1 and this violin version comes complete with mirror image horn dialogues, doppelganger cadenzas and essentially the entire third movement writ large. Gidon Kremer, working from the printed score, produced a dignified if distilled version of his utterances, the entire experience short on emotion although long on clarity. With the violinist’s dry approach and the concerto’s pale imitative character, the result was rather an unsatisfying shadow of previous glories. Simply put, Rostropovich did it better.
Frederick L. Kirshnit