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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Dvorák, Barber, and Shostakovich: Hilary Hahn, Philadelphia Orchestra, Yakov Kreizberg, 26 March 2005 (BJ)

The latest of Yakov Kreizberg’s several engagements over the past six years with the Philadelphia Orchestra was among the most spectacularly successful, in part because the program played to his repertoire strengths, whereas at least once before now circumstances had dictated a choice of repertoire that he found less than congenial. The main work this time was Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, which was treated to a performance of breathtaking virtuosity and at the same time of gripping emotional depth. Currently reading – to my shame, for the first time – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, I found myself understanding this extraordinary symphony better than ever before. The first surprise when you start reading Gulag, rather as with Proust, is how downright funny it is. Such gallows humor is evidently the Russian way of coping with hell. That is the way the precipitous scherzo and uproariously circussy finale with which Shostakovich balances the weight of his vast opening slow movement must surely be heard, and that is the way Kreizberg and the orchestra played them.

For this program, the guest conductor had reinstated the orchestra’s old seating plan, with all the violins on his left, in preference to the recently adopted layout with firsts on the left and seconds on the right. The decision may have been due in part to the fact that he was only alerted to the recent change by telephone the night before his first rehearsal, which hardly allowed time for the requisite adjustment in mental preparation. But he also felt, with some justification, that his choice accorded better with the 20th-century music on the program. With Bruckner, Elgar, and Mahler, not to mention the earlier Austro-German classics, divided violins can be much more effective, but in this case the orchestra, playing at the peak of its powers, sounded quite wonderful with the full tonal richness of the two violin sections all marshaled in one place. There were also so many telling contributions from the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections that singling out a few individuals for praise would be invidious; suffice it to say that every solo was played with the utmost skill and artistry.

There were lovely sounds to be heard, too, in Dvorák’s symphonic poem, The Water Goblin, which opened the program. This is among the composer’s less successful works, treating somewhat repetitiously a small range of thematic ideas that are not strong enough to bear such prolonged examination–but Dvorák never wrote a piece without its share of beguiling moments, and these were sumptuously realized. The concerto of the evening, Barber’s for violin, is also a less than convincing structure. Beginning with an utterly ravishing lyrical theme, it shifts gears all too soon with the advent of rapid passage-work that seems to have nothing to do with the music’s true character. It is almost as if Barber had said to himself, “Hey, wait a minute–this is supposed to be a concerto; I’d better put some difficult fast bits in.” Lyricism reappears on a number of occasions, especially in the opening tutti of the slow movement, but the beauty of this passage is also symptomatic of the way the work undermines the concerto principle: far too often, the orchestra is permitted to trump the soloist. Nevertheless, Hilary Hahn provided a lustrous account of her part, and showed herself equally at home in poetic expression and virtuoso fireworks. The young American violinist has grown enormously in artistic stature since I last heard her play a concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Achieving along the way an outstanding recording of the Elgar concerto, she has now established herself firmly among the leading lights in her talented generation. Her performance on this occasion was greeted with an unusually unanimous standing ovation, to which she responded with a quicksilver movement of unaccompanied Bach by way of encore.

Bernard Jacobson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)