Houston Symphony/Hans Graf at Carnegie Hall – Shostakovich

Antiformalist Rayok
Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)

Mikhail Svetlov (bass)

Houston Symphony
Hans Graf

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 7 May, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Hans Graf. Photograph: Christian SteinerShostakovich composed Antiformalist Rayok (the full title translates as ‘Little Antiformalist Paradise’) as a private work, performed only in Shostakovich’s flat for family and trusted friends, due to its merciless mockery targeting Soviet authoritarianism and the State’s campaign against ‘formalism’ in music and art. Perhaps the work, presented here in Vladimir Milman’s chamber orchestra realization, should have remained private; it is difficult to get a grasp on the flavor of the work’s sarcasm, and the semi-staged performance involved too much distracting, vaudeville-like clowning at the lectern and changes of costume on the part of the vocal soloist and instrumental ‘choir’. Mikhail Svetlov is an animated singer-actor, but his voice did carry much weight in a work where the words matter so strongly. It did, however, cross my mind that the work’s more stinging moments might well be adaptable to today’s United States Congress!

Debate continues over the extent to which Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, written to commemorate events in 1905 (most notably the massacre of demonstrators by Czar Nicholas’s palace forces), in fact depicted the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. The Houston Symphony has an important connection with this work: giving in 1958 with Leopold Stokowski the US premiere and making its first recording. The present performance did not rise to the symphony’s high technical demands, particularly in the enormously challenging second movement, and in intonation issues that cropped up throughout the performance. Worse yet, the historical nature of the work was glossed over, undermined by ill-considered tempos – for example, the mood of the funereal third movement was completely subverted by an ill-considered shift when the second theme was introduced – and too much focus on details of color and timbre that distracted from the long line. Allegros were too rigid and climaxes of the moment rather than the culmination of a dramatic point. A messy and disappointing affair.

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