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Friday, February 11, 2011

Concert Review: Rebels With A Cause

Beethoven and Shostakovich at the New York Philharmonic
Jonathan Biss, at the Steinway. Photo © 2009 EMI Classics
Friday morning's New York Philharmonic concert featured a pairing of two composers who spent their lives struggling against the systems that spawned them: Beethoven and Shostakovich. Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons led the stylish pairing of the former's Third Piano Concerto, (featuring soloist Jonathan Biss) with the latter's Fifth Symphony.

After the lengthy orchestral introuction, Mr. Biss played the piano solo part with elegance and Mozartean grace. His limpid playing emphasized the melodicism in Beethoven's solo part, contrasting with the thoughtful commentary from the orchestra. This was especially true in the second movement, played with a smooth-flowing legato and a very gentle attack.

The final rondo took the piece to new, playful heights, as Mr. Biss engaged in a game of chase-and-tag with the orchestra, racing higher and higher on the keyboard and then soaring back down in a rush of arpeggiated notes. As the soloist played his final round of repetitions, Mr. Nelsons and his orchestral forces raced to catch up, with band and pianist finishing together in an exuberant outpouring of song.

Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony as a response to Joseph Stalin's series of devastating artistic purges in 1936, that were themselves a response to the dictator's (over)reaction to his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Shostakovich quietly locked his just-completed Fourth Symphony in a drawer and began working on the Fifth, which he referred to as "A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism."

Politics and history aside, the Fifth has grown to be the most popular of the 15 Shostakovich symphonies, a big-shouldered four-movement bruiser that requires heroic brass playing and a conductor with tight control over the orchestra's balance. This performance had the former, but the strings were repeatedly drowned out by the brass and percussion. Perhaps that was Shostakovich's message: the little guys can't win.

The epic first movement, with its four-note theme in search of a final resolution took the shape as a proletarian struggle between the strings and brass for supremacy. (The strings lost.) The Allegretto, with its marching theme for low basses and plaintive dance for woodwinds seemed to symbolize the composer's private struggles with the censors and the Soviet state.

The Largo is one of Shostakovich's best-known movements, a sweeping theme for winds that builds to a thunder of brass. The trumpets and timpani hijacked the orchestra in the slamming fourth movement, an orchestral showpiece that was performed with an admirable lack of restraint. This was Philharmonic music-making at its most exciting: a big sonic steamroller that flattened everything in its path, including the enthusiastic audience.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats