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Janson’s absence turned out to be our gain

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
11/09/2019 -  
Carl Maria von Weber: Euryanthe, Opus 81, J. 291: Overture
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10, Opus 93

Rudolf Buchbinder (Piano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko (Conductor)

V. Petrenko (© Richard Termine for Carnegie Hall)

Those among the Carnegie Hall patrons who were disappointed when beloved conductor Mariss Jansons took ill a night before (reported here by Fred Kirshnit in his review from Nov.8, 2019) should not have been disappointed after all, for while wishing Maestro Jansons a quick return to health we were treated to a performance by the Russian maestro Vasily Petrenko who stepped in on a really short notice.

Not only was he available to conduct, but there was not even a change in the program, which included some relatively popular works such as the Weber overture or Mozart piano concerto, in addition to the lengthy symphony by Dmitry Shostakovich. Carnegie Hall was fortunate to find a conductor who knew that score, and Petrenko sure does as he recorded all 15 of Shostakovich symphonies for the Naxos label with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. As it was announced before the concert started, Maestro Petrenko only very recently arrived in New York in order to prepare the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for the upcoming production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades.

I have no information as to how often, if ever, Vasily Petrenko conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO), but their cooperation was palatable and it certainly seemed that the players tried to do their best to accommodate these unusual circumstances. I listened on the radio to the concert which took place the previous evening and was not prepared for the level of excellence the BRSO presented just a day later under a different conductor.

The program itself consisted of true-and-tried repertory, deeply nested in the 19th century and featuring an opening romantic overture and well-liked classical piano concerto: those two works served primarily as an extended appetizer before the real music of Shostakovich: his Symphony No. 10, regarded by many to be his finest. That assessment is debatable, because we would have to forget about No. 8, 7 or 13, all fine and important works in his œuvre.

In the Piano Concerto No. 23 by Mozart, we heard the esteemed Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, who on stage looks much older than his 73 years would suggest. One could ask why, having in his repertory all the Mozart piano concertos, he would chose the most popular and overplayed one, but he played with his customary musicianship, carefully shaped phrases with space between them and a nice, warm sound. However, he showed his true mettle during the encore (with which he often likes to entertain his audiences), the Fledermaus paraphrase of Johann Strauss arranged by Alfred Grünfeld. He tossed off that effective paraphrase with utmost ease, elegance, bravura and naturally brought the house down. One doesn’t associate this serious musician, in the mold of echt-traditional-Austrians, with such repertory and it was so refreshing!

Nearly an hour in length, the Symphony No. 10 was the first one Shostakovich wrote after the long-awaited demise of his nemesis Stalin in March of 1953; the symphony premiered in December of that year, although there is no doubt that at least some sketches for the work were penned far earlier. It was his first major symphonic work after almost a decade since writing his light-hearted No. 9 (1945) or the more powerful No. 8 (1943); in the meantime he was reduced to compose low-brow music that would please the masses. Even after Stalin’s death the censorship would not subside, and at the conference of the Union of Soviet Composers held in Moscow in March of 1954, Shostakovich’s symphony was still debated and criticized as too pessimistic, “not realistic” enough, gloomy and insufficiently upbeat. All of which might be true because up until the last, fourth movement, the prevailing mood is that of tragedy: some declared it to be “an optimistic tragedy”.

While describing Shostakovich’s works one has always to suspect that underlying sentiment of music is one of defiance: for sure the overabundant, almost obsessive use of his musical monogram DSCH (the motif made of pitches D, E-flat, C, B), which was derived from the German transliteration of his name: Dmitri SCHostakovich (E-flat = Es/S in German) was a form of insubordination if not insolence toward the authorities. And in this symphony, just as it was in other works such as in the Violin Concerto No. 1 or in String Quartet No. 8, that name-motif appears for the first time in the third movement and returns later in the finale, as if to show once again an attitude of “you won’t get rid of me that easily!”.

It was evident that Maestro Petrenko had a firm grip on both the orchestra and on the pacing of the large, long, gloomy swaths of despair, with sparse orchestration and music sometimes disappearing. Here, in such moments, we heard ghostly, barely audible winds and brass: the French horns were remarkable that night: secure in tune, precise and what impressed me the most, able to play a real triple-piano.

Yet, Petrenko got the orchestra to show all the savage, vicious, inexorable character in the second movement Allegro, which sometimes is referred to as illustration of the horrors of the Stalin era. Although that concept sounds plausible, I guess Mr. Petrenko himself disavowed that notion by programming as an encore a short excerpt from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (“Entr’acte” Allegretto between Scenes 6 and 7 from Act III), music written in 1934 and possessing the same fiery, uncompromising, brutal character.

The most expressive, most Mahlerian movement is the Allegretto, in which the DSCH motif appears. Mahlerian is not only the orchestration, very sparse, delicate, and subdued but the composer also quotes from Mahler orchestral works introduced by French horns. My own reading/understanding of that persistent use of this motif, which appears first in a quasi-waltz, then again with all the vulgarity of some fair-ground or beer-hall, finally as a reminiscence, is that the composer tried to mock the authorities by presenting himself in a different guises as if to say “I am Shostakovich and you can do nothing about it.” I stress that this is only my private interpretation, perhaps far distant from what the composer had in mind.

The last movement , the one to which the previously mentioned description of “optimistic tragedy” most likely applies, starts with a slow, brooding introduction after which the mood of optimism is hard driven, a little like in the finale of the Prokofiev 5th Symphony. The jaunty tunes of bustling strings and playful scales in woodwinds can’t quite mask the grim power, a feeling of tension and sense of unsettling drama that dwells underneath the optimistic façade.

Petrenko led a very powerful performance, stressing the architecture and not losing the sense of direction that his compatriot and great musician famed for his Shostakovich interpretations, Mstislav Rostropovich, sometimes allowed. He kept the structure intact, yet the pulse never seemed too quick or impatient. Sometimes Petrentko, in moments of special expressiveness, conducted only with his hands, the baton sticking outward from his tight fist. It seemed to us in the audience that we witnessed a kind of special teamwork where the musicians supported their leader and played out for him. As was reported to me afterwards, they had only 45 minutes of rehearsal for a program that took more than twice the time to perform. I also suppose that not too many of the enthusiastic patrons wondered how much different or better it would have been had Maestro Jansons led that Symphony: we definitely got more than we collectively bargained for.

In recent memory, say the last two decades of concert-attending, I don’t recall a more riveting, convincing or better played performance of this supreme piece of musical gloom. The audience, as one might predict, erupted in a prolonged, standing ovation and received one short, but powerful encore, the aforementioned Lady Macbeth excerpt.

Roman Markowicz



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