One of Joseph Silverstein's childhood memories is of sitting by the radio in 1942 and hearing Toscanini conduct the American premiere of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, the "Leningrad" Symphony. Interestingly, one of my most vivid early television memories is of hearing - and, somewhat distractingly, seeing - Leonard Bernstein conduct the same opus.
I imagine our experiences were somewhat different. But either way it should be clear that this work leaves a powerful impression.That was true in 1942-43, when in the wake of Toscanini's broadcast there were more than 60 performances of the "Leningrad" Symphony in this country alone. But it was also true Friday at Abravanel Hall, when more than a half century away from the wartime associations that gave the piece its initial patriotic - and, yes, propagandistic - interest, it seared its way into one's consciousness again, this time with Silverstein on the podium.
The occasion was the final concerts of the Utah Symphony's 1994-95 classical series, which happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of V-E Day. And while I'm not sure this performance entirely removed some of my reservations about the work, its most controversial section - the first movement, supposedly depicting the German onslaught on Shostakovich's home city - made the strongest impression of all.
I say supposedly because, according to "Testimony," the composer's equally controversial memoirs, the "Leningrad" Symphony isn't just about the Nazi menace. In Shostakovich's words, as related by Solomon Volkov, "it's about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off."
But it was hard not to think about Hitler Friday, as, following the noble depiction of the pre-siege populace that opens the piece - here warm and generally unforced - the subdued snare drum stole on the scene under the seemingly innocuous ditty (bearing a striking resemblance to "Da geh' ich zu Maxim" from "The Merry Widow," one of the Fuehrer's favorites) that will come to dominate the movement.
That happens over a series of marching repetitions that, under Silverstein, built with implacable terror to a shattering climax. After which came the icy release of the high strings and the wistful ambiguity of the scherzo, here darkly animated, with an acrid, almost mocking trio.
Nor was that icy sheen absent from the third-movement Adagio, with its Stravinskian chorale, driving syncopations at the center and beautiful viola writing over pizzicato strings and harp.
This was followed by the finale, representing in Shostakovich's official pronouncements "the victory of light over darkness, wisdom over frenzy, lofty humanism over montrous tyranny." But if so, it is a victory of the "scorched earth" variety, with its somber interludes and heroic low brass and cymbals tinged with acid.
Nonetheless it was thrillingly performed, with well-deserved bows for the woodwinds.
It was preceded, moreover, by an equally impressive account of Wagner's "Meistersinger" Prelude in which the nobility was, if anything, even more pronounced. Enhancing that was a heartfelt lyricism rare in this conductor's work, from the boldly striding opening to the richly textured counterpoint toward the end (as though Silverstein were giving the Germans equal time?).
This was followed by the Prelude and "Liebestod" from the same composer's "Tristan und Isolde," here notable for its subdued ache and expansive shimmer. What it didn't have was the unbearable longing and tension I associate with this music. But since the latter was to come in the first movement of the Shostakovich, maybe the conductor didn't want to give the game away.
- MUSIC OF SHOSTAKOVICH also figured as the major item on the season-ending program of the Intermountain Chamber Orchestra, presented Saturday at St. Mark's Cathedral.
Rather than the mighty (and perhaps overlong) "Leningrad" Symphony, however, it was the Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings from 1933, in which there is more wit than weight and more sprightliness than sobriety.
Here that wit was strongly conveyed by pianist Jed Moss, who lit into the more animated sections with a metallic brio. Yet at the same time he, trumpeter Bret Jackson and conductor Jeff Manookian managed to touch on the music's faintly bittersweet quality, especially in the slow movement, where Jackson's artfully shaded playing was particularly haunting.
After this, Moss provided a rhapsodic bridge to the rollicking finale, whose fire was reflected in both its speed and his virtuosic cadenza. Given its pizazz, any comments I might make about string intonation would seem like carping.
But in fact it was more secure here than elsewhere on this all-Russian program. Again, though, that lent a slightly pained quality to Arensky's lovely Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky and underlined the ghostliness of Rudolf Barshai's arrangement of 15 of Prokofiev's 20 "Visions Fugitives" (originally for piano).
Under Manookian, the first - taking for its theme the "Legend" from the Op. 54 Songs - had about it a restrained sweetness, even in the more animated sections (which occasionally dragged). And though things weren't always spot-on in the Rachmaninoff "Vocalise" either (here arranged by Daniel Braden), the spirit was right, not excluding Laura Anne Bossert's affecting violin solo.
Most interesting, however, were the Prokofiev "Visions," here almost halucintory in their eeriness. Again, with few exceptions Manookian kept things subdued, the muted pizzicati of No. 2 contrasting with the bold slaps of No. 4. I think No. 14 (marked Feroce) might have bitten harder. But I liked the happy little flourish at the end of No. 9 and the regretful air of No. 16, the concluding Dolente, as though there were somehow a reluctance to let go.