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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Concert Review: Massacre at Lincoln Center

The New York Philharmonic plays Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Bloody Sunday Massacre by Ivan Vladimirov.
The month of October in New York has been a bit of a mini-celebration of the works of Dmitri Shostakovich. No fewer than five of the composer's 15 symphonies are appearing on concert programs this month, and his early opera The Nose continues to run at the Metropolitan Opera. This week, the New York Philharmonic contributed to this accidental festival, performing the composer's Eleventh Symphony under the baton of Semyon Bychkov.

The symphony was handsomely paired with the Rhapsody on a Theme by Niccolo Paganini, one of Rachmaninoff's most popular works for piano and orchestra. It is a set of 24 variations, combining the Paganini theme with the descending Dies Irae figure from the Gregorian Mass. The 18th variation (which features the main theme played inverted (or upside down)  has been featured in a number of Hollywood movies and seems to be frequently associated with ice skating routines.

In Friday's performance, soloist Kirill Gerstein displayed a lyric approach to this demanding music, playing with a singing tone that was refreshing in its clarity and simplicity. Throughout, he and Mr. Bychkov opted for a neo-classical approach to this work, letting the music make its own statement in each variations. The famous No. 18 sent the audience into rapture, with lush support from the Philharmonic players.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 comes from 1958, a period which found the composer enjoying a well-earned renaissance in his country as well as a break from the repeated purges and terrorization of Soviet artists in the 20th century. Subtitled The Year 1905, the Eleventh is a programmatic account of the "Bloody Sunday" massacre. On July 9, 1905, protesting Russian workers were gunned down by Cossack troops of Tsar Nicholas II in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Written in four continuous movements, this symphony is cinematic in scope, and stark in its choice of orchestral colors.

The first movement is a frozen landscape. Divided tremolo strings and muffled percussion create an impression of total stillness. The static nature of the music is broken after a long stretch with the first mutterings of rebellion in the drums, and keening, soft winds indicating the suffering of the Russian people. Mr. Bychkov balanced his forces carefully, laying the seed material for the movements to come while giving the unrelenting impression of bitter cold and icy misery. Muffled brass calls evoke the distant menace of the Palace Guards.

The second movement (The Ninth of January) depicts a hopeful, almost jaunty parade of marching workers followed by the massacre and subsequent panic. The staccato snare drum providing the grim image of a hail of bullets--and the brass roar out in terror. This is one of the composer's most chilling creations--uncompromising in its portrayal of government brutality. Although the subject here is historic, Shostakovich may also be commenting on the cruelties of Stalin's reign. With this composer, one is never sure what lies beneath the surface. The third movement (Eternal Movement) is a funeral dirge, with a wailing English horn solo over plucked strings and somber brass.

Mr. Bychkov and their forces gave everything to the fourth movement. Subtitled The Tocsin, this is meant to be an alarm call to the listener, showing how the January 9 massacre woke the workers of the world and led to the ultimate successes of the 1917 revolution. The return of the "frozen" material from the first movement and the grieving English horn from the third gave way to overpowering brass and muscular playing from six percussionists. The symphony ended with the final alarm bell sounding from deep in the percussion, clashing with the thunderous major-key outburst from the orchestra.

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