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Monday, October 21, 2013

Concert Review: The Start of Something Big

The London Symphony Orchestra returns to Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bernard Haitink returned to Lincoln Center with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
The meteoric rise of Dmitri Shostakovich as one of Soviet Russia's most brilliant composers came to a screeching halt in 1936, when the dictator Josef Stalin attended one of his operas, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The fall-out from Stalin's displeasure (which included an infamous Pravda editorial) led Shostakovich to quietly withdraw his Fourth Symphony from rehearsals. Locked away in a desk drawer, the work would not be heard until 1961.

On Sunday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall, Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony Orchestra made a good case for the long, difficult Fourth as one of the composer's finest compositional achievements--and its composer's first important statement as a symphonist. (The First is a student piece, while the Second and Third are examples of Party propaganda.) It was fitting that this work was paired with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9--that composer's first mature statement in a genre that he would come to master. This concert was the first of this year's Great Performers at Lincoln Center, an annual series of orchestral concerts and chamber works.

The soloist for the Mozart concerto was Emanuel Ax. Mr. Ax played with warmth and agility while hinting at reservoirs of power beneath the surface. He was well-matched with Mr. Haitink, who chose a slightly expanded orchestra for the accompaniment. This perfectly framed Mr. Ax's performance of Mozart's original cadenzas. The result was graceful with a hint of old-fashioned virtuosity--and there's nothing wrong in that.


Even if the Symphony No. 4 hadn't waited 25 years for its first public performance, it would still be a controversial work. Shostakovich gleefully threw out the rule book of composition, employing gigantic orchestral forces (quadruple horns and wind, six percussionists, two timpani players) and an unusual three-movement format with two enormous outer movements bracketing a small dance movement in the middle. The elaborate structure owes much to the later works of Gustav Mahler--particularly that composer's Seventh and (unfinished) Tenth Symphonies.

The first movement opened in the middle of a musical argument between loud tutti blasts of the orchestra and the xylophone. This gives way to a bustly, jogging march, with Mr. Haitink providing a steady ostinato rhythm, sometimes barely moving his shoulders as he led the orchestra forward with his trademark laissez-faire style. One gets the idea of obsessive repetion, the sound of the composer solving musical problems through cumulative orchestral ideas coupled with  the sheer brute force of sound. The jogging figure keeps coming back, hidden in variations, solos and short ensembles lesser-used instruments.

All this is interrupted--seemingly in the middle of the development by a fast fugato, a descending web of counterpoint which illuminated the strength of the LSO string players as they raced pell-mell through the interlocking melodic lines. This sets up the material of the middle movement, a propulsive Scherzo that combines the first movement's Mahlerian ideas with more than a hint of Russian melancholy.

If the first two movements were impressive, the third (which is really two separate musical ideas played as one long piece of music) was even more so. Mournful bassoons led the movement off with a slow, funereal figure, answered by English horn. Shostakovich then transits to a fast, almost lively tine again led off by the bassoons and answered by slashing, almost folksy chords from the strings. The work ends twice. First, there's a coda presented as a blast of orchestral fireworks in a seeming "crowd-pleasing" gesture. This jubilant bit of noise is immediately undercut by a repeition of the same melodic ideas in muted, brass, a string tremolo and low notes on the celesta. This ghostly orchestration is Shostakovich's real persona at last--fearful, anxious and questioning the validity if what he has just written.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.