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Master Class

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/19/2003 -  
Igor Stravinsky: Three Madrigals (1960)
Dmitri Shostakovich: Cello Concerto # 1
Serge Prokofieff: Symphony # 3

Truls Mork (cello)
New York Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)

One of the most exciting DVD’s available today is a television performance from 1961 of the Cello Concerto # 1 of Dmitri Shostakovich featuring its dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, and the London Symphony conducted by Charles Groves. The soloist appears off to the side, a muscular, bespectacled professor totally in command of the piece, although occasionally, because of his athletic style and percussive technique, he appears to have just awoken from a dream and found a rabid wolf in his arms. If there is indeed such an elusive creature as the definitive performance (as stealthy as Jimmy Durante’s old “lost chord”) of a work of music, this is it. Not only does this musician radiate total confidence, even making the execution of this extremely difficult score seem effortless, he was also, as a close personal friend of the composer, involved in its composition to the point where it is his unique manner of play which inspired the rough and tumble writing for this otherwise gentile instrument. This is completely his piece, just as the Elgar concerto is the property in perpetuity of Saint Jacqueline Du Pré. For any cellist to perform this brutal essay for an audience with a long collective memory, there must be a conscious choice early on: to be or not to be (like Slava)?

Further, in performance the concerto undergoes a bit of an identity crisis. Shostakovich entitled his first effort for his own instrument the Concerto #1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings because of the individual brass line being just as prominent as the part of the keyboard soloist. Similarly, this current work features one lone horn (in the DVD, a very young Barry Tuckwell) who challenges the cellist to even greater heights, its clarion call a constant reminder to get on with it. There is certainly the potential for upstaging here: I once attended a performance wherein the hornist, placed all alone on a remote riser, received a much larger ovation afterwards than did the announced soloist. In short, playing cello music by Shostakovich is no day at a Black Sea beach.

Yet Truls Mork was definitely up to the challenge. Furious in his attack, he plunged into an even more quickly paced reading than Slava ever attempted, the very speed an element in the overall excitement, although some phrases were necessarily clipped in order to preserve the pace. I have heard Mr. Mork perform this work before (in 2001), but now he has more focus and drive, more steel in his fingers. Remarkably, it was the moderato movement which most challenged the hegemony of Rostropovich, this Dane proving melancholy in a very powerful manner. I remember how impressed I was with his cadenza back when I experienced him with the Swedish Radio Orchestra; this naked section was simply astounding this evening. My companion, from Mexico, remarked that “back home, we would say that he made his instrument bleed”. Also in top form was principal hornist Philip Myers, insistent and challenging, although perhaps a tad loud in spots for sustained perfect intonation. Myers’ surprisingly flamboyant final flourish assured that Fate still has the last word over the individual. Fine, fine music making.

It is perhaps hyperbolic (especially in the case of Stravinsky) to compare the feud between Schoenberg and Stravinsky in Los Angeles to that of Brahms and Wagner in Europe, but the similarities are striking, especially in the tiff’s influence on later musical developments. After Schoenberg’s death in 1951, the Russian firmly strode into twelve-tone territory and this current piece is a good example of the instinctive similarities between early music and late (it is important to note that Anton Webern wrote his doctoral thesis on the music of Isaac). Stravinsky does indeed successfully capture the raw and unusual timbral combinations of the late Renaissance in these orchestrated motets, even if last evening’s ensemble did not. But the orchestra and its guest conductor made a marvelous recovery in the very difficult Prokofieff score, snarling chunks of his opera The Flaming Angel. This performance was notable for its daring and unabashed dissonance, as well as disciplined articulation in fortissimo passages. The energy level was palpably high and the musicians, freed at least for this week from the smothering love of Maestro Maazel, played this angelic music with the freshness of demons.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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