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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
04/21/2002 -  04/22/02 04/24/02
Dmitri Shostakovich: Cello Concerto # 1; Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings; Hamlet Suite; Symphonies Nos. 7, 8 & 11
Denis Shapovalov (cello)
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Rod Franks (trumpet)
London Symphony Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich (conductor)

It is interesting to speculate on which composers will be remembered and revered when the 22nd century looks back upon the 20th. In the opinion of Mstislav Rostropovich, his orchestration teacher and great friend Dmitri Shostakovich will be one of the elite who passes the future’s muster. Slava points out that the combination of depth and breadth in his mentor’s symphonic output qualifies him as the Beethoven of our age, a chronicler of the best and the worst, the most sacred and profane, the enunciator of the wounded cry of despair and the exalted trumpeting of individual liberty. Surely Shostakovich, in his fifteen symphonies and an equal number of string quartets, explored the outer reaches of the conclusion of the age of anxiety as intensely as his beloved inspiration Gustav Mahler, from whom he learned his descriptive harmonic language, plumbed the depths of its inception. Having just celebrated his 75th birthday in grand style, Rostropovich, the remarkable cellist, pianist, conductor and citizen of the world, is channeling his energies into the presentation of his teacher’s gigantic works to further their understanding and propagation among a contemporary public. He is a man on a mission: it will not be for lack of trying that his personal pantheon of collaborators, especially Shostakovich, Prokofieff and Britten, go gentle into that good night of obscurity.

Slava’s father and grandfather were cellists and he was taught en famille until enrolling at the Moscow Conservatory (where he met Shostakovich) to study with his uncle Semyon Kozolupov. As a result, he may not be able to totally relate to what must be the incredibly daunting task of performing before himself, but Denis Shapovalov is now used to the experience and so can summon up the courage to play not only a cello piece under his direction but one written with the master in mind. In the same percussive way that Bartok defined the proper performance method for his three piano concerti, Rostropovich set the parameters for this work and, over the years, its executants have fallen squarely into two categories: those who attack their instrument as if they were grappling with a wild wolf at their throats and those who don’t (and don’t get it). Shapovalov’s assurance out of the starting gate announced that a new champion had been found for this concerto and his impressive mixture of virtuosity and emotional intensity riveted all ears to him immediately. Not only able to match the dedicatee in primal brutality of expression and supreme dexterity in technique, this protégé proved even more impressive in the quieter sections than his mentor. In fact, surprising for this piece that thrives on its boisterous parts, the yearning, searching quality of the moderato and emerging cadenza were the real focus of this masterful performance. What was beyond the musical and into the cultural in all of this was the sense of being present at the creation of a new link in the unbroken performing chain (the young Shapovalov is already a professor back home), no politics, famine or oppression will pierce the vital circle of communication. The important horn part was flawlessly played, but a little less insistent than originally intended, Rostropovich, at the end of the day still a cellist at heart, keeping his ensemble at a somewhat artificially induced volume level so as not to force the soloist to strain his fine intonation in competition. The ultimate problem with Mr. Shapovalov’s reading may be that, like the sainted Du Pre with the Elgar concerto, his ownership of the piece might make all other efforts of his colleagues irrelevant.

Hearing Rostropovich conduct the 11th was truly an experience to cherish. Not only is his ability to shape the four episodes that of a master storyteller, but he also infuses the unmistakable air of authenticity over the proceedings. His sense of the atmospheric is particularly audible: the scene in the palace square an entire film expressed strictly in musical vocabulary. Shostakovich is one of several composers who took a crack at orchestrating Boris Godounov, and in this symphony one can hear the same icy clouds from the East, smell the palpable stench of murder in the mist, and feel in one’s bones the chill that is the plight of the poor Russian people. The last movement of the symphony, known as “tocsin” (the alarm bell), is Shostakovich’s Coronation Scene, complete with horrifyingly metallic chimes. In a fine performance like this one, the image of the overpowering strength of the state, symbolized by the unpitched pealing, survives long after the puny struggles of man, expressed in mere tones, dies away. Rostropovich, an amazing wellspring of energy and memory for a man of 75, brought out every nuance in the score so expertly as to keep everyone riveted throughout all four extended episodes (this particular piece is a rather long go for most audiences) and his final shaping of the bell section was pulsatingly passionate, almost tactile, like a cosmic potter at the wheel of fate. Only the unremarkable play of the London Symphony prevented this very good performance from becoming an excellent one. The string sound is serviceable but not spectacular, the brass, especially the trumpets, so vital to the narrative side of this particular opus, shrill and tinny. It seemed that only the percussion section played with exceptional drive and power this afternoon. I had an eerily similar encounter with this particular symphony three years ago in this same hall when Yakov Kreizberg conducted the New York Philharmonic. At that time, the maestro built a level of intensity rare for that orchestra and, even though all of the players were trying their best, the end product was moving but not thrillingly so. Yesterday it was déjà vu all over again: Rostropovich conducted like an immortal but the band was insistently earthbound. Only a true Russian would follow such high tragedy with a rollicking polka as an encore. Capturing the true spirit of his motherland and turbulent times, this last masterstroke was highly appreciated by an obviously moved crowd who were responding on at least three levels: applauding the fine performance of the day, showing their understanding of the historic nature of the concert, and, most importantly, paying homage to such an obviously warm human being.

Humor, that most elusive of all musical qualities, took center stage in the second concert. Garrick Ohlsson spun his signature golden threads in a gentle version of the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings (why isn’t the previous work entitled the Concerto for Cello, Horn and Orchestra?) which was capable of turning into a snort or guffaw at the drop of a sable hat. Ohlsson was in total command of the difficult rhythmic changes in the piece, which come at a rapid fire and require wholesale shifts of gears accomplished in nanoseconds. His facile metamorphoses from syncopation to ragtime, slippery slides to ‘30’s jazz were natural enough to be considered oxymoronically as prominently understated. It is only after suffering through stubbornly foursquare accounts of this ribaldry in the past (including a surprisingly two left-footed version by the Royal Concertgebouw a few seasons ago) that one realizes the interpretive strength and comic power of such a seamlessly protean interpretation. Rostropovich had the band in fine shape as a down and dirty back-up group and co-principal trumpet Rod Franks ran the gamut from wah-wah sideman to race track bugler with the same cool and singing ease as his pianist partner.

This is a tough call, but, for me, the most intense of all of the Shostakovich symphonies is the 8th. Commencing with the most searing of all of his slow movements, the piece unfolds the way that the Mahler 10 would have, had the composer lived to develop his ideas. Written as the Soviets were undoubtedly turning the tide of the war in their favor, the work was the unwelcome voice of reason in an otherwise self-denying society which had been manipulated into believing that life was actually improving every day. This is Shostakovich at his most stubbornly rebellious, refusing to allow even a single ray of optimism into the dark sonic clouds of his testamentary jeremiad. From the first, this reading was something special, the conductor hearing in his mind’s ear the final hushed passages while intoning their opening mirror images, the complex architecture of the entire opus revealed in all of its horror and glory. There is no beauty in this symphony, only truth and so the lack of a first rate stringed lushness was not a problem this night, the LSO members concentrating instead on a jarring inevitability. The high brass was much improved from the previous concert; thus the tutti sound was quite eloquent. Although I was surprised by maestro’s relatively relaxed tempo in the allegro non troppo (normally the ultimate adrenalin rush: I still have chills when remembering how Solti used to offer this section as an encore on European tours of the CSO), the excellence of execution moved the focus from alacrity to precision and worked well within the total concept of relentlessness. When the sound and fury died away, applause seemed almost intrusive, but came in great waves nonetheless. This was simply a terrific performance. Rostropovich may very well recognize the unique power of the 8th, as he forswore an ovation for himself, choosing instead to hold up the score and give it a heartfelt kiss.

However, we all went to the well once too often. The third concert in the series was ratcheted down considerably in intensity and level of energy. The opening piece was an artificial grafting of snippets of film music not even constructed by Shostakovich, the individual shreds and tatters obviously designed by the composer to facilitate the visual images at hand (and to put a few desperately needed cabbages on the table). For forty-five minutes that seemed like two hours, the orchestra started and stopped, presenting these bagatelles whose musical value was undoubtedly subsumed by the initial cinematic totality and reminded less of Ivan the Terrible and more of Braveheart. The crowd responded with the first polite applause of the festival.

After such an enervating beginning, only a spectacular performance of the 7th could save the evening and it was not forthcoming. The players, despite (or perhaps because of) a night off, appeared tired and spent, the strings screechy throughout, the brass up to its old tricks, even the double reeds, who had done such yeoman service the first two concerts, a bit squawky. Rostropovich himself seemed fatigued (gee, and he’s only 75!) and may have been feeling what some members of the audience were experiencing. One can only take so much of this type of music before becoming somewhat inured to the suffering. The 7th, ever since its broadcast premiere, has been perceived by the public as being in two parts. The material after the martial siege of Leningrad music of the first movement has always been treated as a second-class afterthought, a totally unfair but understandable assessment because of its being always upstaged by such a memorable scene. However, this music, designed to portray the quotidian struggle, is equally heroic, and certainly more beautiful, than anything in the introductory section. The LSO approached it all rather gingerly however and there was the palpable sense of the impatient in their reading. The first movement also flagged in intensity at the outset of the Nazi onslaught (did Shostakovich know Berlioz’ Trojan March?) and I couldn’t help thinking of the Bartok parody as I experienced these paper tigers at the gates. To be fair, the relentlessness returned once the siege mentality had a chance to become ingrained, the orchestra responding very well to the task of playing so loudly for so long, not dropping a stitch of intonation in the fortissimo passages. One device that increased the sonic effect was having trombones on both sides of the stage, creating a more desirable balance of bottom in this brutal attack and a special kudo is in order for the lead snare drummer, who never missed a beat. But somehow, the inner meaning of all of this, the sense of historicity, the rending of the moral imperative, the regrettable universality, was already on the bus, waiting for the ensemble to pack up their instruments and go home. But last impressions need not be lasting ones; overall this week was a superior tribute to a tortured intellect.

Externalizing the problem and blaming it all on Hitler was not only a great propaganda device for Stalin but also allowed his most famous musical victim at least a moment to bask in the sun of official approval and worldwide public adulation (just the threat of a German invasion had granted a similar interval of apotheosis to Prokofieff for Alexander Nevsky). But this celebrity faded quickly (Shostakovich actually made the cover of Time in his fireman’s hat) as the chronicler of his city’s unbelievable courage couldn’t in good conscience sustain his most favored composer status for very long. Now that the politics has, by its very nature, gone the way of all things transitory, what remains is the more permanent and vital power of the art. All in all, from the point of view of posterity, the tormented life of Dmitri Shostakovich was luxuriously blessed with the introduction of such a committed acolyte as Mstislav Rostropovich.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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