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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Concert Review: Life During Wartime

Valery Gergiev conducts Shostakovich at Carnegie Hall
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The effects of war: Stalingrad in 1943 after the battle.
Image © 1943 RIAN Archive, licensed through Wikimedia Commons.
The protesters were absent on Friday night, as the Mariinsky Orchestra offered the second of three concerts at Carnegie Hall under the baton of music director Valery Gergiev. Friday's concert was an all-Shostakovich program, with music director Valery Gergiev choosing to highlight two very different works.

The Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and Strings (also in the catalogue as Piano Concerto No. 1) and the Symphony No. 8 stand ten years apart. (About the only thing they have in common is their key signature: C minor.) The concerto is a youthful, early work with the same manic energy that fills his opera The Nose. The Eighth is a war symphony, written in a safe haven deep in Russia as the Nazis advance was finally halted at the year-long Battle of Stalingrad.

Mr. Gergiev took the stage accompanied by pianist Denis Matsuev and Mariinsky principal trumpet Timur Martynov. This is the composer in his early voice, with fairground rhythms and virtuoso playing from both soloists. The piano takes the dominant role for most of the four movements, with Mr. Matsuev tossing off Shostakovich's dizzying, fluid runs at a very fast tempo in the opening bars. The slow movement (marked Lento)  reveals the disquiet at the heart of this piece.

 The third movement is really an extended piano cadenza with minimal strings, an opportunity for Mr. Matsuev to demonstrate his prestidigitative abilities before racing into the finale. This last movement finally brings the two solo instruments together, trading lines while commenting snidely at each other as the orchestra throttles through a complex set of variations. Following applause, Mr. Matsuev returned for two encores, including a pounding, noisy transcription of Edvard Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King.

The Eighth Symphony is a brother to the more popular Seventh. Here, Shostakovich uses some of the same devices (a long slow buildup of a particular theme, and repetition so obsessive as to verge on minimalism) to hammer home his point--that war is a futile, insane exercise that only leaves tragedy and death in its wake. Small wonder then that this work is one of his lesser-known major symphonies--it was labeled as "alien" by the Soviet state-controlled press and quickly mothballed.

It opens with a figure in the cellos and basses, the melodic kernel from which the entire symphony sprang to life. But what bloomed was a dead, poisoned garden, colored with dark grays and blacks. Mr. Gergiev used his long experience of theatrical music to build suspense, bringing out the clash of weapons and the fear of battle in a series of dissonant blasts that made the floorboards shake.

In the wake of this battle movement, Shostakovich gives voice to the English horn, in a lengthy lament over quiet accompaniment. This paved the way for the coda, with strings and a soft trumpet solo that sounded like extreme unction over the dead. Mr. Gergiev managed this big movement expertly, keeping the audience on edge through the obsessive repetitions and maintaining momentum in the most challenging passages.

The three central movements were harrowing war portraits. First, a bleak dance movement (marked Allegretto) that stomped and roared with the force of a night bombardment. A chugging Allegro offered keening woodwind solos over a relentless, almost mechanical grind--the sound of rolling armored divisions, perhaps. The slow movement (Largo) was cold comfort indeed: a mighty detonation of brass that led to a bleak elegy over an empty, nocturnal battlefield.

Hope does exist in the middle of war. And here it was tentative at the start of the finale, with piping tunes from the bassoon and clarinet emerging--new growth out of the chaos and death that came before. The strings played a soothing, descending melody, the rising opening figure turned upside-down to become a song of peace The idyll was interrupted by sort of military parade for the wounded brass, followed by one  last return of the horror chords from the first movement. But this didn't last--the crash-and-bang yielded to a glowing, almost transparent coda for the strings.

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