Starved for Shostakovich

IMG_4595This year’s Toronto Symphony season features just one work by Shostakovich–his 10th Symphony, heard last night in a single concert.  As it turns out, this was the last stop in a mini-tour to both Ottawa and Montreal with the orchestra under interim director Sir Andrew Davis playing this work, the Prokofiev Violin Concerto #1 with soloist Karen Gomyo, and a fascinating world premiere work by composer-in-residence Emilie Le Bel.  I heard the Tenth, of course, earlier in the year in Toronto with the TSO Youth Orchestra in a performance that was a little rough around the edges, but full of enthusiasm and with a fascinating story conveyed by a young refugee musician.  This time, it was perhaps the longest-serving member of the orchestra, one of the violists, who stood up before the performance and told of touring in Europe with the TSO in 1974, and playing the Tenth, which was just over 20 years old at that point and “felt brand new.”  “We played the hell out of,” he went on to say.  Some things do not change.  The TSO did, indeed, “play the hell” out of the Tenth last night in a performance full of nuance, precision, and some of the best solo playing I’ve ever heard.  The performance received an enthusiastic and immediate standing ovation. So why was I not absolutely captivated?

I’ll get to those caveats in a moment.  First, what I loved.  Stephan Bonfield’s Ludwig van Toronto review pointed out the strong work of the brass, horns, and winds.  There was not a solo that was subpar, and listening to each of the principal players absolutely nail the nuance and spirit of their particular moment of glory was amazing.  To me, the horns in particular stood out, especially in the third movement (where the success really hangs on the horn motif that’s repeated 12 times.  The particularly interesting thing here is that each iteration of that motif was a little different, so it felt much more in dialogue with the rest of the orchestra than a simple repeated phrase.  I also reserved a loud cheer for the percussion, particularly the snare drum work which was tight, crisp, and served to put an exclamation point on any phrase where it appeared.   But it was the string work–lush and brooding in the first movement, furious in the second, lyrical and strident both in the third, and mercurial in the fourth–that allowed this performance to shine.  What Davis did very well is to highlight the bones of the work–bringing out through nuance in phrasing and dynamics the richness of the orchestration.

Bonfield mentions in his review the brutally difficult second and fourth movements, but for me, the highlights were that third movement, with those marvelous horn solos, and the first movement, which was dark and powerful at the same time and whose climax was shattering, thanks to the brittle and powerful brass, the interplay of the winds and strings, and the delineation of the rhythm with the snare drum.

Here I will digress for a moment.  It was 1999.  I’m not sure how exactly it happened–whether I heard it on the radio (in those pre-YouTube days) or read about it–but I found the Tenth Symphony and purchased it on CD.  I am almost certain the reason why I did was because of the second movement–the Scherzo, the alleged “portrait of Stalin.”  So I have a longer history with this particular work than with almost anything else Shostakovich wrote, and particularly with that second movement.  My standards are straightforward:  It must be brutal, and it must be fast. Earlier this week, I heard for the first time the composer’s own reduction for two pianos, played by Shostakovich himself and his friend (and fellow composer) Mieczyslaw Weinberg) in 1954.  The run time on this recording for the Scherzo is 3:48, but that includes moments of silence, so that the actual playing time is close to 3:40.  No one plays it that fast–it might not even be technically possible to do so–but that does give a good idea as to Shostakovich’s intent.  Most recordings I’ve heard run just over 4 minutes long;  anything over 4:20 sounds “too slow” to me.  The TSO’s performance last night went a mind-boggling 4:49.  What I found is that this lugubrious tempo drained the movement of some of its fury and brutality.  It did mean that the technical brilliance was accented, as some passages (particularly in the strings) that are just a blur of sound were more distinct, which was certainly interesting, but like the sped-up finale of the 5th Symphony of Leonard Bernstein, my appreciation for this different approach did not mean I liked it better.

The other issue I had is bigger, and had nothing to do with the Toronto Symphony itself.  It’s the hall.  I sat in the centre mezzanine section, a wonderful seat from which to observe the orchestra and to actually see all of the sections.  But Roy Thomson Hall is cavernous, and sound literally gets lost in it, even when you have close to 100 musicians on stage. The climactic portions of the Shostakovich 10th should absolutely flood the senses; in Roy Thompson Hall, they are merely loud. And sitting in the centre mezzanine there you actually lose that connection with the orchestra–you feel almost as if you are watching from another room.  Looking back on the recent performances I have attended there, every one where I sat in the mezzanine or balcony suffered from the same issue of a feeling of detachment:  the Mahler 2nd (where occasionally the problem turned into a feature in the ethereal 4th movement), the Beethoven 9th, the Beethoven 5th Piano Concerto, and the Shostakovich 2nd Cello Concerto.  It was only for performances like the all-Mozart concert with Pichas Zukerman I attended last January, where I was in the first few rows on the main floor, where I felt a decent level of engagement.  This issue particularly affected the second piece on the program last night, the Prokofiev Violin Concerto #1, a lovely piece that to me feels like Art Nouveau personified–Romantic, ethereal, yet somehow strong.  It’s known particularly for the fact that the violin soloist plays more with the orchestra rather than against it–but what this meant in Roy Thomson Hall, at least from the mezzanine was that the orchestra frequently seemed to overwhelm the soloist.  Perhaps had I been closer, where I could have seen Gomyo’s expressions, it would have been less of an issue, because her performance was certainly outstanding–expressive, nuanced, and technically brilliant.

Back to the Shostakovich.  I am coming to this discussion with absolutely spectacular performances of his works in halls better suited acoustically still ringing in my ears–the Columbus Symphony playing the 7th, the Nashville Symphony’s 4th, the Cleveland Orchestra with the Violin Concerto #1 last weekend. I’ve seen some very good performances with student orchestras in the wonderful Koerner Hall.  I thus know what Shostakovich can sound like in the right hall.  I’m spoiled. Toronto lacks that experience–at least with the TSO.   I was a little stunned to find out just how little TSO listeners have gotten to experience what I have–it seems like it’s been a very long time since they’ve gotten anything but the 5th Symphony. Reviewer Bonfield concluded his piece thusly: “We need more Shostakovich symphonies to be programmed right away. For example, the last concert in which we heard the Seventh live by the TSO was eleven years ago, the Tenth nearly eight years ago. It’s time — the TSO has whetted our appetite, and Wednesday night left us ready for more.”  I agree (as did the audience) and dream of the day I might not have to drive seven or eleven hours to hear a 13th or a 4th–but should more Shostakovich appear on the menu in future seasons, I will be sure to select a seat on the main floor.

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