New York Philharmonic/Maazel – Shostakovich 100th-Birthday Celebration

Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.107
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Lynn Harrell (cello)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 28 September, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

Three days after Dmitri Shostakovich’s 100th-birthday, Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic paid tribute to the Russian composer with performances of two of his most popular works.

Given Shostakovich’s tortured life, our understanding and appreciation of his works inevitably hinges, at least to some degree, on their relationship to his struggles as a Soviet artist. The Fifth Symphony dates from in 1937, soon after Stalin’s (apparent) revulsion at the composer’s opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, had led to his being attacked as decadent. Passing muster in the eyes of Stalin and the musical establishment as Socialist Realism, his Symphony No.5 was Shostakovich’s ticket back to respectability.

Stalin was long dead, however, when the First Cello Concerto was composed and premiered in Leningrad in 1959 by Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom it was written. This was a happier period for Shostakovich, who was able to travel abroad the next year when the concerto was given its U.S. premiere performance and initial recording by Rostropovich with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Lynn Harrell gave a dazzling performance of it. Right from the initial statement of the principal theme, which he attacked with a muscular energy that he sustained throughout the opening movement, he produced a beautiful tone that carried clearly over the accompaniment. The orchestra was also in outstanding form. Early in the first movement, the strings executed in perfect unison a series of up-bowed sforzandos, first ff and then p, as Harrell dug into a succession of furious down-bowed ff chords followed by a series of trills. The orchestral rhythm then became syncopated, with the winds and timpani prominent as Harrell’s cello intoned a wailing theme that was soon taken up by the solo clarinet.

At this point, the solo horn entered, playing the opening theme. This was the first of the concerto’s several horn solos, all played superbly by the Philharmonic’s principal, Philip Myers, whose glowing sound resonated clearly through the hall. Later in the movement, Myers and Harrell joined in an extended duet, with the horn taking thematic material previously introduced by the cello while Harrell provided emphatic punctuation with rhythmic chords. Finally, the cello returned to the opening theme, softly accompanied by the winds, until a sudden drumbeat and a brief ff wind passage brought the movement to an abrupt end.

The remainder of the concerto was played without interruption, with a lengthy cadenza linking the slow movement, marked Moderato, and the concluding Allegro con moto. In the Moderato, a lyrical string passage and a brief horn solo preceded the cello’s principal theme, which was echoed by the solo clarinet. Harrell’s expressive playing captured the music’s mournful quality, shifting to a more sardonic mood as the winds provided a syncopated underpinning, and becoming increasingly agitated as the movement progressed. Another beautifully played horn solo – a repeated figure that progressed from ff to pp within the space of a few bars – ushered in the concluding section of the movement in which Harrell played its initial theme in harmonics, accompanied intermittently by the celesta, creating a most ethereal sound.

After a short intervening passage, Harrell dug into the concerto’s extended cadenza (well over five minutes in duration) with great musicality, more than capably meeting the many technical challenges set by the composer in what is surely among the greatest tours de force in the cello literature. Beginning slowly and softly, he increased the intensity and tempo gradually but steadily, ultimately playing figures at almost blinding speed – a skill that he exhibited in the finale as well. Toward the end the opening theme of the concerto, which had a brief reprise in the cadenza, returned in full force, being taken up by both the cello and horn and, finally, the entire wind section.

This was terrific music-making, with both Harrell and the New York Philharmonic in outstanding form and Maazel ever conscious of maintaining an appropriate balance with the soloist. More excellent orchestral playing followed the interval, as Maazel led a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that met the composer’s description of this work as “lyrical in form from beginning to end”.

Maazel put his imprint on the symphony right from the start when he set a decidedly slow tempo and held the cellos and double basses back to avoid their overshadowing the violins, which played with a warmth that served to create a lyrical, rather than eerie, atmosphere. He brought out the work’s rich tonal palette toward the middle of the first movement with its successive flute and clarinet solos, followed by a beautifully played passage on the violas and some extended interplay between piano and horns in which the trumpets soon joined. The winds and the violins then sent the music whirling into a rhythmic (Allegro non troppo) section, with Maazel resisting any temptation to take it too fast. This may have attenuated somewhat the shock of the sudden emergence of the brass and percussion marching to a steady drumbeat, which then accelerated until the opening theme returned, with the winds and strings playing it simultaneously with the horns, trombones and tuba – but at four times their speed.

The concluding passages of the first movement are preceded by a series of haunting duets and trios for various combinations of wind instruments, including for flute and horn, piccolo and clarinet, and piccolo and flute, as well as an unaccompanied trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Myers and his fellow principals played these with great delicacy: Robert Langevin (flute), Mindy Kaufman (piccolo) Liang Wang (oboe), Stanley Drucker (clarinet), and Judith LeClair (bassoon). The movement drew to a quiet and touching close as Glenn Dicterow’s violin solo soared above the celesta’s repeated scales.

A glissando-laden solo by Concertmaster Dicterow figured prominently in the Allegretto, a waltz-like scherzo, which also provided the wind principals with further opportunities to show off. These included extended duets for flute and bassoon and for bassoon and contrabassoon (excellently played by Arlen Fast) as well as a solo for the piccolo clarinet, played with gusto by Mark Nuccio at the beginning of the movement. Maazel’s jaunty tempos emphasized the whimsical nature of this satire of classical symphonic form.

Of the symphony’s four movements, the Largo has the greatest emotional impact. To increase the density and variety of string sounds, Shostakovich divided the violins into three sections and the violas and cellos into two sections each. The resulting sound as the various string sections joined the ensemble was quite remarkable, as were a delicate duet for solo flute and harp and successive solos for oboe, clarinet and flute. The dark tone of a passage for clarinets, solo bassoon and contrabassoon carried over to the lower strings and led to the chilling effect of accented xylophone, winds, first violins and cellos over tremolos in the piano and remaining strings. This high point of tension was gradually released as the cellos, joined by the winds and then the violins, and then continuing alone, led to a pp passage for muted strings, a harp solo, and the concluding duet for harp and celesta as sustained notes in the strings died away. The sensitivity of the orchestra’s playing in the Largo left the audience nearly breathless, and without affording more than a moment to recover, Maazel plunged straightaway into the finale.

Just prior to the premiere of the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich wrote: “the finale resolves the tragedy and tension of the earlier movements on a joyous, optimistic note.” Maazel’s reading of the final movement was quite consistent with that point of view. After adopting generally slow tempos in the first three movements, he attacked the finale somewhat more briskly, although not radically so – the overall timing of this performance was still nearly 55 minutes. (The published score estimates the performance-time as 45 minutes.)

The accelerando that immediately followed the initial statement by the brass of the principal theme propelled the music vigorously forward with rapid, agitated figures on the upper strings and winds, with the lower strings, winds and brass restating the theme intermittently. Soon afterward a secondary theme appeared, first as a trumpet solo (Philip Smith) and then, in a sunnier incarnation, played by the strings. With the reappearance of the main theme, the forward impetus came to a nearly complete halt, and the solo horn took up the secondary theme in a still more mellow form. After a prolonged slow section dominated by the strings, and concluded with a harp solo, first the winds and then the strings led the way to the movement’s final section, with the principal theme recurring gloriously, and non-rushed, on the brass as the timpani and percussion had the last word.

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