Conductor, violinist save the day in grand fashion

By Peter Kupfer

The Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg and its director, Valery Gergiev, saved the day in remarkable fashion on Tuesday evening, April 8, at Symphony Center. The Rotterdam Philharmonic, originally scheduled to perform, had cancelled its entire American Tour last month, citing concern over the current international situation. This may, in the end, have been for the better.

Gergiev, musical director of both orchestras, had just completed a North American tour with the Kirov. In these pressing times, Gergiev felt that music was more necessary than ever, and he was able to convince nearly the entire orchestra to fill in for each of the Rotterdam’s original seven concert dates. Those musicians that had unbreakable commitments back home were replaced by Chicago Symphony players.

The program opened with Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. The composer was never fully satisfied with this opera. He revised it numerous times over the course of his career, eventually stating on his deathbed that he still “owed the world” Tannhäuser. The work currently exists in several versions, but the overture has served as concert material since Wagner’s own day.

In the 19th century tradition of operatic writing (from which Wagner would eventually divorce himself quite drastically), the overture continues to be a presentation of the major motives from the ensuing opera-in this case, the pious pilgrims’ chorus and the orgiastic Venusberg music. Eventually the two unite and, in Wagner’s own words, “each pulse of life leaps and throbs to the song of salvation, and those dissevered elements, soul and senses, God and Nature, are united in the sacred kiss of love.”

The Kirov offered a majestic reading of this work. The opening chords of the overture immediately revealed the warm, round tone that characterizes the Russian orchestral sound, perfectly embodying the somber pilgrims’ chorus. The entrance of the strings and brass only reinforced the beauty of this luscious tone, rounding out all of the registers and overtones. The trombones and trumpets, even at their loudest and most majestic, retained a full, never edgy, sound. The upper strings remained lush and clean, even in their highest register and during the hectic frenzy of the Venusberg music.

Next, the celebrated young violinist Nikolaj Znaider joined the orchestra for Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1. Written in the years 1864 to 1867, the work exhibits enormous affection and requires great compositional skill for the violin. It has withstood the test of time, remaining a favorite of violinists and audiences for generations.

Since winning the 1997 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, Znaider has established himself as one of the world’s foremost young virtuoso violinists. His performance of this standard romantic concerto clearly demonstrated his remarkable touch and vibrancy. Znaider’s tone was gentle and sweet throughout, yet the inherent nature of the work unfortunately made the beautiful sound of the supporting orchestra secondary.

The delight of the evening came in the second half of the concert: Shostakovich’s monumental Fourth Symphony. This work, extreme in every regard, was composed in the years 1935 to 1936. On the eve of its premiere, the composer withdrew it under pressure from the Communist authorities. It was not until December 30, 1961, 25 years after its intended premiere date, that the symphony was finally heard.

In 1934, Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mstensk opened in Leningrad to great acclaim, securing the composer’s status as the preeminent Soviet composer. The opera was performed extensively in the following years across Russia, Europe, and the United States as well. However, on January 26, 1936, the course of Shostakovich’s career changed forever when Stalin attended a performance of Lady Macbeth in Moscow. The great leader was not pleased; he and his entourage departed before the opera had even finished. Two days later the official Soviet newspaper, Pravda, published an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music,” condemning Shostakovich’s opera and music in general as promoting “aesthete-formalism,” while neglecting the virtues of socialist realism. In a matter of days, Shostakovich had gone from one of the state’s most revered composers to one of its most reviled enemies. It was under these conditions that Shostakovich completed his Fourth Symphony and prepared it for performance.

The symphony has often been described as Mahlerian, not only for its gargantuan orchestral force, but also because of the episodic nature of its movements. They follow no traditional formal patterns; rather, they unfold as series of satirical, grotesque, and sublime episodes under the guises of marches and waltzes. The immense force of the entire orchestra is actually used sparingly, such that much of the music consists of only a few sections of the orchestra, often with one or two solo instruments. The progressive musical language of this piece represents the direction in which Shostakovich was going immediately before the state censure. One can only imagine where it might have led had he not been forced to submit to the strictures of the Communist regime.

Gergiev led the Kirov most deliberately through this momentous work. From the quietest, sparsest moments, to the intensely loud and dissonant chords of the full orchestra, Gergiev maintained the dramatic energy needed to bring both variety and coherence to this long and seemingly disjointed work. The aforementioned tone so unique to the Kirov again lent a roundness and warmth to the music, even during the most tremendous fortississimo moments. The orchestral soloists played with technical precision, all the while embodying the exact character of a given section.

To hear a Russian orchestra as talented as the Kirov perform Shostakovich is certainly a rare opportunity. The intense 15 seconds of complete silence following the final celesta notes that end the symphony indicated that the entire audience understood this. Though the Rotterdam Philharmonic would no doubt have offered a riveting reading as well, it was perhaps for the better that the Kirov filled in.