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Two Faces: Weak and Strong

Jones Hall
05/03/2011 -  and May 4, 2012
Dmitri Shostakovich: Anti-Formalist Rayok (arr. Vladimir Milman) – Symphony No. 11 in G Minor, Op. 103 ("The Year 1905")
Mikhail Svetlov (bass)
Houston Symphony, Hans Graf (conductor)

H. Graf (© Christian Steiner)

The Houston Symphony's current program, which it is taking to Carnegie Hall for the Spring for Music festival, purports to present "Two Faces of Shostakovich" - two that are woefully uneven. Shostakovich the symphonist, especially after his Fifth, was a master of "new wine in old bottles," dutifully (and with obeisance to the Soviet regime) acknowledging the tradition of the genre while resuscitating it with his unique rhetoric. Even the most devout fan wouldn't argue that his eleventh essay in the genre is his most successful, but it does cause quite an impact. With its monumental length and message, it could make a satisfactory program on its own, and one wishes that was how it would have been presented.

Sadly, the inclusion of the Anti-Formalist Rayok, in an unimaginative, facile chamber orchestra arrangement by Vladimir Milman, fell flat. It is a weak piece by Shostakovich's standards and, while the political commentary provides a modicum of entertainment value, it wears thin at about the five minute mark. This fact was not helped by bass Mikhail Svetlov's small voice, which simply did not carry above the chamber orchestra, already being constantly held at bay by Graf's cautionary hand. Similarly, the "chorus", made up of wind, brass and percussion players from the orchestra, lacked polish, not only in its unison singing and shouting, but even in coordination of its standing and sitting.

One bemoans a missed opportunity here. Shostakovich's oeuvre has many faces. The HSO is showing one of its best in the symphony it is presenting, but they are missing out on the chance to present the composer's invigorating, early, modernist experiments (the suite from his brilliant opera The Nose would have worked nicely), his important work as a film composer, or the austere bleakness of his last works (Svetlov would have been put to better use in the underperformed and powerful The Execution of Stepan Razin, the Six Romances on Verses by English Poets or the Buonarroti settings).

Fortunately, the main course was satiating. The Houston Symphony has a storied legacy with the Eleventh Symphony. Leopold Stokowski made the first commercial recording of the work with this orchestra in 1958, a scant six months after the piece's world premiere in the Soviet Union. That recording remains a benchmark and a bold testament to the forward-looking programming that the organization prided itself on under more willing conductors. Hans Graf's programming of the work certainly deserves applause, and his interpretation holds its own among the very best.

The tundra that is the first movement, a chilling landscape punctuated by perfectly placed horn and trumpet fanfares, was finely etched. Strings moved in perfect unison, playing with even, blended tone. The crushing contrast of the second movement's illustration of the 1905 massacre also allowed the orchestra to shine, with brass now prominent, proud and snarling, percussion haughtily annihilating the balance of the orchestra, and the cinematic cut back to the motto theme producing the gooseflesh that it should. The third movement stood out for the sumptuous playing of the viola section, rising above their violin colleagues in anguish. The finale, too, brought bold, spot-on brass playing and an especially fine reading of the haunting English horn solo towards the end, securely played into the instrument's stratosphere.

For the bulk of the program, then, this was an impressive performance, one that will travel well and be received with warm ovations.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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