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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Shostakovich Festival: Gerard Schwarz et al., cond., soloists, Seattle Symphony, Russian National Orchestra, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 29.3-15.4.2006 (BJ)

Amid the plethora of events celebrating Dmitri Shostakovich’s 100th birthday, the Seattle Symphony’s “Shostakovich Uncovered” festival may well have been one of the most creatively planned and satisfyingly executed. Festivals focusing on a composer always seem more illuminating when they also include music by forerunners, contemporaries, and successors. In this regard the Seattle series was exemplary.

The opening program, on 29 March, brought the resident orchestra together on stage, to thrillingly resounding effect, with the touring Russian National Orchestra; the latter’s artistic director, Mikhail Pletnev, led an admirably uninhibited but at times rushed and messy performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, whereas Gerard Schwarz combined equal eloquence with much tauter control in the corresponding work by Shostakovich. Schwarz’s next program, which I heard on 1 April, prefaced a masterful performance of the Shostakovich Sixth with Stravinsky’s early, somewhat vapid Scherzo fantastique and his far more rewarding Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, and with a group of arias by Glinka, Borodin, and Tchaikovsky, sumptuously sung by Jane Eaglen. On 6 April it was the turn of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and First Symphony and Prokofiev’s Fifth, conducted by no less formidable a guest than Mstislav Rostropovich. He was at his inspirational best. The Shostakovich First is not a particular favorite of mine, but Rostropovich skillfully underlined its arresting strangeness rather than its occasional touches of slickness. His highly-charged account of the Prokofiev was vivid and cohesive, and he rounded the evening off hilariously with that outrageous Shostakovich trifle, Tea for Two, explaining its origins to the audience in an entertaining bilingual dialog with an interpreter.

A scheduling conflict prevented my attending the program presented by the Seattle Chamber Players on 9 April in the smaller Benaroya auditorium. Here, works by Gubaidulina, Firsova, and Pavel Karmanov were followed by Victor Derevianko’s arrangement of the Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony for the curious (yet, in view of the original’s idiosyncratic scoring, thoroughly apt) combination of string trio and percussion. But there was ample compensation four days later in the festival’s final offering. Schwarz’s lithe reading of Lemminkäinen’s Return, from Sibelius’ set of orchestral Legends, and Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, played with richly burnished tone by Julian Rachlin, were followed by what may well be the greatest of all Shostakovich’s symphonies, No. 8.

This passionate and saturnine piece received a performance that fully confirmed Gerard Schwarz’s status as, to my thinking, alongside Yakov Kreizberg and the younger Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the finest exponent of the composer’s music now before the public. It recalled to mind a performance Schwarz led a decade ago of Shostakovich’s scarcely less compelling Eleventh Symphony – an interpretation that led me, perhaps fifty minutes in, to realize that I had been forgetting to breathe, such was the incandescent emotional power he brought to it. Given the exceptionally cogent expressive and musical arc projected by the Eighth Symphony, not to mention its characteristically Shostakovichian subtlety and ambivalence (the program annotator’s suggestion that “the music moves from pathos to joy” struck me as at once an underestimate and an oversimplification), this concluding performance was if anything even more irresistible in its unflinching emotional honesty and steely technical command in the face of the work’s extremes.

There are so many demanding solo passages and taxing tuttis in the score that to salute the evening’s individual instrumental feats would be invidious–though the vertiginous flights required of the first trumpet are so spectacular that I cannot resist a nod of especial appreciation to David Gordon, who threw them off like so much child’s play. Suffice it to end by saying that the standard of playing throughout the festival underlined the Seattle Symphony’s ability to challenge comparison even with the most celebrated orchestras in the land – and beyond.

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)