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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 77 (1947-48), Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953), Maxim Vengerov, Violin, New York Philharmonic, Mstislav Rostropovich, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 22.4.2006 (BH)

It is a wondrous thing to witness an artist growing and maturing with a particular piece, and that is exactly what we were privileged to observe in Maxim Vengerov’s astounding reading of Shostakovich’s extraordinary First Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, led by the venerable Mstislav Rostropovich. The violinist’s recording with the maestro and the London Symphony Orchestra, released eleven years ago, is still one of the most recommendable versions around, but Vengerov clearly hasn’t been resting on those laurels. (The disc was nominated for a Grammy and won Gramophone’s Record of the Year in 1995.)

Against a strikingly soft backdrop from the orchestra, Vengerov let the opening phrases pour forth with the gentlest of hands, as if cradling emotions not quite ready for public display. The movement was suffused with unutterable sadness, so much so that I wondered what Vengerov was thinking about to produce such feelings. The introspective mood was almost suffocating in its intensity. While waiting for the explosive second movement to begin, the spell was momentarily broken when a huge crowd of latecomers had to be admitted, all tromping noisily down the aisle and all apparently wearing knee-high Doc Martens. Vengerov seemed to find it amusing, but Rostropovich was clearly annoyed, and rightly so, since the break lasted roughly five minutes.

Thankfully when the piece resumed there was no loss of vision. The hyperactive Scherzo was somewhat slower than these two artists do on the recording, but nevertheless exciting since every single note was audible. Some of Shostakovich’s showy runs can feel blurred together at high speeds, but not here. It would have been totally understandable if the sold-out audience had burst into applause immediately after the final chord, but everyone held emotions in check, in that delectable electricity of almost total silence.

The mournful, somewhat quizzical third movement Passacaglia climaxes with one of the literature’s great cadenzas, and here is where Vengerov really demonstrated that he has continued to think about this work over the years. All the aching and bleeding were intact, yet interrupted by little brilliant flashes, as if the violinist were locked in a small room, pacing in circles of self-examination. I can’t recall hearing it played with more fever, more ambiguity. It was almost a disappointment when he slowly began to pick up speed, heading into the spellbinding final Burlesca. With the orchestra in respectful-but-not-bland teamwork, Vengerov only seemed to increase his ardor and wizardry as the movement roared to its dazzling conclusion. I’ve heard this work many times, but rarely with the combination of tenderness, passion, and strength that Vengerov displayed here.

Rostropovich adopted tempi here slightly slower than on his recording, and at times I felt that Vengerov was chomping at the bit. He can play this piece much, much faster. But watching him compelled – or in agreement – to slow down just a little meant that every single note could be discerned, in the zillions that Shostakovich showers down on us. At this point in his phenomenal career, Vengerov is just getting started (relatively speaking) so let us hope that at some point he will choose to preserve this concerto again. A point of view this distinctive and this virtuosic deserves to be archived. It was no surprise to see the duo summoned onstage five times for a huge, well-earned round of cheering from the packed house.

Some consider the Tenth Symphony the composer’s greatest of the fifteen. I last heard it in a searing reading with the Philharmonic and Antonio Pappano two years ago, and unfortunately missed it by Gergiev and the Kirov as the first installment of their complete Shostakovich cycle here recently. In general, my ears have become accustomed to Gergiev’s somewhat quicker pace, having heard him more often in these symphonies than anyone else during the last few years. A bit of urgency generally does them good, and here I felt Rostropovich was just a trifle underpowered, allowing some moments here and there to feel just a bit slack (especially in the vast final movement). The orchestra played magnificently, however, and summoned up some moments of startling delicacy, as well as some shattering peaks, such as when the “DSCH” motto makes its hammering fortissimo appearance near the end. The best was the first movement, imposing and deliberate, with a hypnotically loud climax. The virtuosic Allegro was a tad too polite, and frankly, just needed to be a hair faster to make its savage point. But with some frantically exciting flute work, the strings burning up the floor and the Philharmonic’s energetic percussion section working overtime, there was still much to enjoy. At times the conductor’s raised, clawed hand seemed to be pulling up the sound through the floor.

As one of the last direct links to the composer, Rostropovich is self-recommending on that criterion alone – not to appear patronizing in the least. He has a style that harks back to the Bernstein era, with an obvious empathy for Shostakovich and his world of irony and pain. And although the maestro looked terribly healthy on the podium, at almost eighty there’s no telling how long he’ll be up there, making it essential to savor his work while it lasts.


Bruce Hodges




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