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Shostakovich’s compositional truth

Verizon Hall
02/08/2024 -  & February 9, 10*, 2024
Giovanni Gabrieli: Sacræ symphoniæ: Canzon per sonar septimi toni No. 2
Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony, Op. 4
Dimitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43

The Philadelphia Orchestra, Tugan Sokhiev (conductor)

T. Sokhiev (© Patrice Nin)

Russian maestro Tugan Sokhiev led the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall with a dynamic program pairing Britten’s playful Simple Symphony with Shostakovich’s volcanic Symphony No. 4.

Sokhiev’s last appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra was in November 2022, six months after he resigned from both the Bolshoi Theatre and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse amidst intense criticism for not giving a full‑throated condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He weathered the criticism by sidestepping the politics with his statement “In Europe, today I am forced to make a choice and choose one of my musical family over the other.”

With the Philadelphia Orchestra Sokhiev it is obvious that it is all about the music and his engagement with these musicians on this night with a program that showcased the Philadelphia Orchestra in top form.

Sokhiev bounded on the Verizon Hall stage and without fanfare ignited the horn heralds of Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzon composed in 1597 and sounding cinematic by now for its commanding bravura. It certainly made one sit at attention and ready to absorb the lyrical subtleties and quiet drama of Britten’s Simple Symphony. Britten’s glittery “Boisterous Bourrée” opening followed by a robusto pizzicato movement by the upper and lower stings (noted to be played as fast as possible) that swings into a Scottish reel drew applause. Then the “Sentimental Saraband” which Sokhiev masterfully builds its soaring emotional power that resolves to a simple lullaby. The “Frolicsome Finale” is Britten at his most accessible and radiant as rendered by the Philadelphians.

The second half of the program was nothing less than a defining performance of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. Sokhiev summons its orchestral depth, narrative impact, and in its original intent its subversive power.

Shostakovich was 29 when he completed the symphony and was starting to feel the political heat leading up to its premiere in January 1936. Stalin had recently expressed utter distain for the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth, famously walking out at its premiere and Pravda was trolling the composer printing a review with the title “This is Chaos, Not Music.” Shostakovich knew he was on Stalin’s hit list and he was also worried for the safety of his family. He made a public statement cancelling the premiere after being officially urged to do so. It was 25 years later, 8 years after Stalin’s death, that the symphony had its premiere in Moscow, Dec. 11, 1961, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin leading the Moscow Orchestra.

The subversion of structure is a dark mirror of the political j’accuse against the Kremlin’s oppressive governments against Russian people. There are no recapitulations in the three long movements. Shostakovich’s great theme lives in his work, however he might veil them behind nationalist motifs. Hearing it now at a time when the Russia people are under the Iron fist of another ruthless dictator, one is reminded of Shostakovich’s artistic bravery.

The forest of percussive instrument lead into the breakneck tempo of the Allegretto (noted in the score to be played as fast as possible) is a raging tempest for The Philadelphia full strings. Sokhiev summons the composer’s orchestral maze of orchestral counterpoints and jarring interlocks. Shostakovich’s assaultive fuselage of sound include stoic, Russian anthemic horns meant to mask the diabolical intent. In other moments, there is lyrical introspection–a limping waltz, a feral violin, haunted harp chords–disembodied mises en scène that appear and vanish, like specters of the disappeared. The somber perpetuo of the final movement, a coda that bleeds like a gasping statement of profound grief.

There were so many solo moments to savor during this hour long symphony, among them soloist Ricardo Morales’ clarinet snaking through the surface orchestral and David Kim’s solo violin passage speaking whispering volumes. The lurching bassoon, a study of disquieted emotions played so unforgettably by Daniel Matsukawa. And the inestimable lyricism of violinist David Kim, harpist Elizabeth Hainen, cellist Hai‑Ye Ni, just to name a few.

Sokhiev appears reserved on the podium, all business, but as Martha Graham famously said, “The body doesn’t lie” and Sokhiev’s sharp, maestro choreography tells a lot of his immediacy and palpable engagement with the musicians. Without doubt in this performance, he was in the zone to elicit from this orchestra every aspect of Shostakovich’s compositional truth. And he was all smiles drinking in the lusty applause from this audience.

Lewis Whittington



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