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Beethoven, Schnittke, Shostakovich: Gidon Kremer, violin, Andrius Zlabys, piano (offstage), New York Philharmonic, Mikko Franck, conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 10.11.2005 (BH)

 

 

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72B (1806)

Schnittke: Concerto Grosso No. 5 for Violin, Invisible Piano and Orchestra (1990-91)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937)

 

 

It was a pleasure to hear this late Schnittke work, originally commissioned for Carnegie Hall’s centennial and debuted by Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra, and even more of a delight to note the huge audience reaction following Gidon Kremer’s eloquent performance.  In typically Schnittke mode, the work mines many different compositional styles and encourages them to nudge up against each other, producing jarring contrasts and more than a little humor (such as the little “oom-pah-pah” for tuba and harpsichord).  With a long opening solo for the violinist, the initial Allegretto eventually leads to a strange, sinister waltz.  The soloist is audible almost constantly during the work’s twenty minutes, sometimes submerged into the orchestral fabric, and at others, such as in the final Lento, sailing over a crawling mass of sound by the entire orchestra – rhapsodic in the middle of a nightmare.  The offstage, amplified piano is sparingly used, initially bursting with untamed spleen, at least in the excellent fingers of pianist Andrius Zlabys.  The striking ending comes well after one expects it: after a calm fadeout, the violin sneaks in a wispy little curlicue of a phrase for another fifteen or twenty seconds or so, as if asking a question that the universe is now unable to answer.  Mr. Kremer played all of this with the gusto of someone who knows its shimmering oddities from the inside out, and Mikko Franck encouraged the orchestra to go for broke, meeting Schnittke’s requests with brilliant playing to match that of Mr. Kremer.

As James M. Keller writes in his excellent notes, a good reading of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony will bring down the house, and this was no exception.  Franck’s take was filled with some small surprises.  If the opening Moderato was not as sad as some, and took a while to gain altitude, once it did, the subsequent movements provided the requisite drama.  The following Allegretto was somewhat slower than usual, although with no shortage of explosive moments.  The poignant Largo might have been the high point, with some glorious, piercing strings alternating with the rock-solid winds, in an intense emotional interlude that almost outclassed the pounding final Allegro non troppo.  In the high-octane finale, the orchestra’s timpanist, Joseph Pereira, was especially notable: for the final four strokes, he appeared to switch suddenly to double sticks, creating even more palpable, physical “thwacks” that were hugely effective.  (If this is indicated in the score, I had somehow never noticed before.)

Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 is one of the hoariest of concert openers, yet Mr. Franck found a miraculous freshness and strength, reminding me once again that warhorses are warhorses for a reason.  With some furious playing from the Philharmonic, the piece veritably leaped into the air and made an eye-opening prelude to the Schnittke.  Highlights were some scampering pianissimos, and a gleaming offstage trumpet from the upper balcony.  Mr. Franck conducted most of the concert from a chair at the podium, but some passages here and elsewhere in the concert coaxed him to stand briefly, as if whatever pain he was in was worth enduring for the sound.

 

 

Bruce Hodges

 

 

 

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