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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Concert Review: The Crowd Pleasers

Maxim Vengerov at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Maxim Vengerov. Photo by Sheila Rock for Warner Brothers Classics.
A debut and a return were the story at the New York Philharmonic this week. Making his debut before a subscription audience was Long Yu, the Chinese maestro who leads three orchestras in that country. The return was that of violinist Maxim Vengerov, who had not played with the Philharmonic in nine years. His solo spotlight: the evergreen Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, an audience favorite that puts much of the burden squarely on the soloist's shoulders.

Mr. Vengerov has been expanding into the role of conductor in recent years, leading orchestras in Switzerland and engaging in other musical excursions. Thursday night's performance indicated that he has retained his instrumental chops, as he played the high-flying solo part with energy and considerable abandon to the joy and awe of the assembled. The cadenza in the first movement, with its double stops, pulled notes and fearless high harmonics was particularly thrilling, a virtual clinic in showy violin technique.

In the first movement, the orchestra's accompaniment was often ragged, with wind instruments arriving late and stumbling over each other's lines. In the slow movement, the tutti was too loud, a sea of blurry notes that threatened to drown the soloist. The high-speed finale was a better, saved by Mr. Vengerov's from-the-gut playing. One could not help wonder if the performance might have been better had it been conducted from the bow. However, the audience remained enthusiastic and Mr. Vengerov rewarded them with the Sarabande from Partita No. 2.

Shostakovich wrote the Fifth Symphony as a deliberate artistic statement, one designed to placate Soviet officials riled by the reaction of Josef Stalin to his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. An article in Pravda attacked the composer directly. Shaken, the composer withdrew his Fourth Symphony from rehearsals in December of 1936. Shostakovich locked that work in his desk drawer, where it would remain unperformed until 1951. He wrote a new symphony along traditional lines, one which was guaranteed to save his professional career and please his government.

On its surface, the Fifth is loaded with censor-pleasing "socialist realism", progressing dutifully from minor to major keys and depicting some sort of human struggle against titanic forces. Yet, the Philharmonic players (who know this work cold and can probably play it blindfolded and scoreless) did not miss the ironies and moments of sadness that lace this score together with bitter, cutting thread. This was especially audible in the fine playing of the wind ensemble, with oboe, clarinet and contrabassoon underlining the work's internal, mourning spirit.

Many of the Vengerov supporters vanished for the second half, depriving themselves of a  rock-solid performance of this always-popular symphony. With the orchestra swollen to its full size, the players bit cleanly into the lurching and ominous intervals that repeat and vary themselves throughout the first movement. When the rat-a-tat rhythm of the snare drum came in against pounding timpani, the Philharmonic sounded like it had finally gotten its groove back.

That strong trend continued in the lurching, Mahlerian dance movement, where Shostakovich maintains a circus-like atmosphere before launching a clod-hopping, rustic trio. The slow movement dragged under Mr. Yu's guidance, but the complicated finale (with its strange metronome markings and whiplash tempo changes) came off, ending in a false dawn of brass and percussion. Whether this was a genuinely optimistic ending or Shostakovich's caustic commentary about the "brave new world" that he found himself in is a matter for debate.

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