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Shostakovich: Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1, Violin Concerto No. 2, Symphony No. 13 Babi Yar, San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor; Alexander Barantschik, violin; Mikhail Petrenko, bass, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 31.3.2006 (HS)



It's a long way, psychologically, politically and musically, from the insouciant salon music of Shostakovich's 1934 Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1 to the bleak scene painting and righteous indignation of the sprawling Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’, written in 1962 in the depths of the Khrushchev era. The Violin Concerto No. 2, debuted by David Oistrakh in 1967, stands somewhere between, a restless if relatively traditional piece of something like pure music, heard much less often than the sparkling first concerto.

For this, the second week of all-Shostakovich subscription concerts conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, the symphony deployed its Russian-born concertmaster Alexander Barantschik to play the concerto and imported the 30-year-old Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko to sing Evgeny Yevtushenko's words for the symphony. Stylistically, then, the performances should have been above reproach. And indeed, there was none of the over-wrought emoting that a performance of the bitter sentiments of the ‘Babi Yar’ symphony can elicit. As he did with the Symphony No. 5 the previous week, Rostropovich steered a middle course, carefully observing Shostakovich's tempos and dynamics, letting the music and words speak for themselves.

By its sheer length (over an hour), weight and power, the Symphony No. 13 made by far the biggest impression. Really an oversized cantata, it uses voices in every movement. Petrenko displayed a bass with a gorgeous sheen, suave musicality and scrupulous attention to Yevtushenko's poetry as its draws a bleak picture of the state of the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.

With this approach, Rostropovich and Petrenko, aided by the precise work of the men's chorus, made clear the indignation in the words at prevailing anti-Semitism in the first movement. (It gives the symphony its title, centering on an World War II incident in which 100,000 citizens, mostly Jewish, were slaughtered and buried in mass graves at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev.) They waxed darkly sardonic in "Humor," which tweaks the powers that be for their lack of it. The ennui of waiting in line to buy anything in the Soviet Union was palpable in "In the Store."

The final, most intensely personal episodes were the strongest for their disquieting quieter moments. "Fears" meditates on what it was like to live with the constant threat of reprisal by the state against the individual. The long slow section that starts the movement, in which the soloist sings ironically of "fears dying out in Russia," couldn't have captured more pointedly the contrast between the words and meaning. As the finale, "A Career," bravely notes that history remembers those who were right even if they were persecuted for it, the elegiac chords of the string quartet underlined the final words with unexpected beauty and nobility.

A similar tack struck me as less successful in the concerto. Barantschik played it conservatively, opting for elegant tone and a sense of refinement over rhythmic bite. Not that the pace flagged, but this was almost a Haydn-esque sound. It was lovely to listen to, and made the long aria voiced by the violin particularly attractive in the slow movement, but I'm not sure that's the way I want to hear this concerto played too often.

Much more satisfying was the short opening suite, an artifact of the early Soviet Union's fascination with American jazz. Shostakovich disdained most Soviet musicians' wan attempts at emulating this style, and composed this music for a 13-piece ensemble using the instruments he associated with jazz--trumpet, trombone, piano, saxophone, percussion, string bass and, oddly, violin, banjo and slack-key guitar. What he came up with widely misses anyone's definition of jazz, but the musicians of the orchestra found a sort of Kurt Weill decadence in the sashaying of the opening waltz, a puckish humor in the tongue-in-cheek polka and an almost slow-drag ragtime feel to the languid finale with its Hawaiian guitar slides.

If the power of the Thirteenth Symphony made all this seem like a distant memory by the conclusion of the concert, the suite made a sort of last-chance taste of sweetness before the acidic bite of his later music came to the fore.



Harvey Steiman






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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)