Solo Trumpet and Brass Set the Spirit

Yuja Wang in Thursday night’s first costume. (Aram Boghosian photo)

Shostakovich’s two masterful piano concertos, separated by an intermission and by 24 tough years in his life, are strikingly different, though one would have been hard pressed to notice the contrast in on Saturday night. The brilliant Yuja Wang, who had played this music for many years, possesses an excellent vantage point for her shifting interpretations. It feels awkward and snooty to nitpick a pianist I admire — and one thoroughly enjoyed by both the players and the audience — but to me the glass was only half-full.

To lay my cards on the table, the C minor concerto tells a story that screams in bold capital font. There are three main characters in the drama. The Creative Spirit, played by the piano, spills its rich heritage in various quotations, starting with a vague hint at the opening phrase of the Apassionata, highly recognizable by Soviet ears ever since the days it was anointed as the most sublime kind of music by none other than Lenin. The orchestra performs the part of the Zeitgeist: nostalgic in the slow movement, rushing towards happy Communist future in the outer ones. And the solo trumpet mostly voices the mood of the archetypical Russian simpleton. In the first movement, the creative spirit comes to terms with the times, curtails the brooding and joins the dash towards the bright future. The second movement dwells on the past when both the land and the simple people were unperturbed and kind, while the finale challenges the Creative Spirit in a variety of ways. It ranges from the basic needs of survival — Beethoven’s Rage Over the Lost Penny might be a very literate hint — to the need to prove its worth in the face of the Vox Populi. The brass voice of the latter comments on creative expression with all subtlety of a ton of cast iron. Driven to distraction, the piano attempts a protest but then launches into a cadenza full to the brim with attempts to please the simple-minded listener. Not only does it employ fireworks of virtuosity, but it also feverishly incorporates every low-brow form of entertainment from circus music to tunes popular among the revolutionary rabble. The whirlwind coda drives towards a future where all contradictions would be reconciled, and every character would be a cog in a fast-moving engine. When I heard Yuja Wang play this concerto 8 years ago with Concertgebouw Orchestra under Maris Jansons, the drama unfolded in remarkable high definition.

This time however, the first movement rushed by so fast that you could only hear the speed and virtuosity. Nelsons and the orchestra kept up at the expense of missing some beats and generally channeling Keystone Cops. In the third movement, the obvious structural elements could not escape, of course, but excess speed blurred individual musical phrases beyond recognition. As a result, the torturous journey of the Creative Sprit got distilled to a simple recipe: splash your virtuosity and you will get your reward. As indeed proved to be the case last night.

The slow movement was a different matter altogether. Starting with a Chopinesque interlude, Wang intoned her long lines beautifully, without swooning, and the elegy for the golden age unfolded in its full glory. It was already heartbreaking even before Thomas Rolfs entered, but with his long solo it became downright transporting. It could hardly sound more ethereal if Rolfs’s chair slowly levitated up and offstage.

Similar ups and downs dominated the 2nd concerto. A mix of lightheartedness and warmheartedness rarely seen in Shostakovitch’s oeuvre, the 1957 composition commemorated and facilitated the Conservatory entrance exam of son Maxim, the future sensitive conductor of much of his father’s work, notably including this concerto. It is music full of childish innocence and, for the most part, presenting relatively modest technical demands. The latter can be of course compensated by the Wang’s breakneck tempi. The first movement projected an overdose of virtuosity, by varying from crazy speed to just super-fast speed, and by introducing some rubato completely unfitting to the innocent boyish march. She continued to insist on virtuosity in the finale as well, taking the episodes of the scales and Hanon exercises to a Hadron Supercollider level energies. Shostakovich, while composing the concerto, had most likely shared the piano with Maxim practicing. For the typically tense and sarcastic composer, these quotes presented rare and precious moments of humor and mirth, and it was sad to see them coerced beyond his intentions.

The second movement, among the most lyrical that Shostakovich ever wrote, started with a mix of liturgical motives and a powerful folktune. Wang played it with appropriate feeling and sparkling colors, while free of sentimentality. That was the movement to cherish and remember while looking forward to the continuing evolution of Yuja Wang.

Haydn’s ‘Military’ Symphony in G Major closed the program. In 1793-1794 London, Haydn was liberated from the more routine musical duties at the Esterhaza, appreciated and adored by the public, and safely separated by the Channel from all military theaters of the day. Composed by a genius at an apogee of his creative powers, the symphony entertained and thrilled by adding theatrical elements, Janissary sounds of cymbal, triangle, and bass drum, on top of the master’s normal treasure chest of musical ideas. The tame version of military campaign enchantingly starts with a rather bucolic call to arms via a charming tune of flute and oboes. The battle imagery, as the audience readily interpreted it in the 1794 London, unfolds in the second movement. Masterfully delivered by the BSO, the ‘battle’ elements filled the hall with fascinating sonorities, as the percussions colored the sound of the whole band. Then the trumpets — or the archangel? – sounded retreat and finally gave answer and resolution to the challenge posed by disturbing brass that kicked off the evening.

It’s worth noting that the master demanded an orchestra of 60 for the 1000-seat King’s (second) Theater, where Salomon produced his brilliant concerts. The 66 players with modern instruments in the 2,200-seat Symphony Hall made a joyful and at times visceral noise. Nelsons, perhaps cueing more than usual, managed fleet tempos and quick changes with dexterous effectiveness.

Though the Presto finale briefly clouded over with hints of warlike menace, the sun soon gleamed through the glorious crystalline sounds in the violin section led by Alexander Velinzon and Elita Kang. For one brief moment we could glorify warfare.

Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.




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