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Dutch Treat

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
02/14/1999 -  
Dmitri Shostakovich: Selections from Hamlet; Concerto #1 for Piano, Trumpet and Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony #2

Ronald Brautigam (piano)
Peter Masseurs (trumpet)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

Dmitri Shostakovich had a hard life, filled with deprivation and political uncertainty. He was forced by dire economic circumstances to write much hackwork for the fledgling film industry and was still in need of funds in the 1960's when he was asked to write a score for a new film of Hamlet. He approached this subject with great trepidation because it was his music for this play in the 1930's that first got him into trouble with the authorities. The Stalin government saw an eerily similar characterization in the royal Danish couple to their own despotic tyranny and lumped the composer into the subversive camp (the Russians have a much harsher read of Hamlet than those of us in the West). Coupled with the scandalous music of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the incidental music for Hamlet almost cost Shostakovich his life. In any event, he accepted the commission and produced an interesting score, more on the level of Hollywood than the great work of his compatriot Prokofieff. It was a strange introduction to the amazing forces of the Concertgebouw Orchestra but they certainly gave this eminently forgettable music more than its due.

One of the most interesting of all Shostakovich's compositions is the unique Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Orchestra. Harkening back to the composer's days as a pianist in a silent movie house, this rollicking piece is filled with the herky-jerky rhythms used to accompany Shostakovich's favorite film star, Buster Keaton. The bizarre combination of sonority between the shrill high brass instrument and the keyboard allowed Shostakovich to thumb his nose at convention and the repressive Stalinist regime in an idiosyncratic Russian style loosely translated as "middle finger in the pocket". Mr. Chailly and the orchestra captured the spirit of the work exactly as did the brilliant trumpeter Peter Masseurs, who often performed this piece for Haitink. Unfortunately the young pianist Ronald Brautigam, who was technically adept, appeared to have no clue as to the elan vital of the work and, as a result, his pianism was little more than empty runs and trills. Humor is an elusive commodity in music and was not a part of the arsenal of this otherwise competent soloist. The strings of the Concertgebouw really shone in the slow movement and the overall articulation of the ensemble was impressively flawless.

The highlight of the afternoon was a gorgeous reading of the Rachmaninoff. All of his life Rachmaninoff agonized over the perception that the public cared little about his compositional abilities, but rather elevated him to star status exclusively on his remarkable pianism, falling in love with the Concerto #2 and the Paganini Rhapsody because of the composer's (and his friend Vladimir Horowitz') virtuosity. It is heartening to see that the Symphonic Dances and the Symphony #2 have become favorites with the concert-going public. Here was the opportunity for this magnificent body of musicians to exhibit the fruits of world class musicianship. In this very hall five years ago I heard Maestro Chailly conduct this same score with the fabulous Philadelphians in a performance so moving that, at the end of the third movement, there was sustained spontaneous applause. Today's reading was more intellectual and architecturally sound with another style of string playing on view. The Concertgebouw violins play as one unbelievable chamber musician, achieving a state of unison grace rare in the musical world. The Philadelphians, by contrast, use a blended bowing technique (the so-called Philadelphia sound invented by Stokowski) and, as a result, produced a lusher Rach II, but the Dutch orchestra's sound was incredibly lustrous (I used the word "burnished" to describe their Brahms concert on Friday night) and immensely satisfying. This amazingly beautiful composition (what other twentieth century symphony is as rich in sonority?) was presented in a performance that was nothing short of angelic.

Chailly is one of the very few true masters of the conductor's art active today. When he exhorts his strings for more, they give it. He never postures and is totally committed to excellent musicianship and his own aesthetic (witness his programming of Schoenberg on Friday night). The only real disappointment (and it was a major one) was that this concert was supposed to feature the mighty Symphony #8 of Anton Bruckner, but the program was changed for this Concertgebouw world tour. This is a shame as Chailly, a brilliant crafter of Brucknerian edifices on CD, would have, I am sure, left a memorable impression of that giant score (like the building of a Gothic Cathedral) had he chosen to stick with his original programming. But I have nothing about which to complain, as the Rachmaninoff is one of the most spectacular orchestral showpieces and, in this master's hands, a real treasure. The concert was part of the Great Performers Series at Lincoln Center and you can find out more about upcoming events if you consult their website at www.lincolncenter.org

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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