Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sydney Symphony: Ashkenazy conducts Shostakovich

Photo: Janine Jansen


After the summer, end of holiday feel of the Mendelssohn presentation of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM last week, it was with excitement that I approached this concert. Once again I declare that I am only a concert goer in my appreciation and not an expert. I had in the Shostakovich, admittedly, one of my favourite composers, a great and shattering time.

The first half of the program was Antonin Dvorak’s VIOLIN CONCERTO in A MINOR, Op53 (B.108). The guest violinist was Janine Jansen. Janine Jansen made "her Concertgebouw debut in 1997 and is a huge star in her native Holland and is now recognised as an exciting and versatile artist". Her London debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra was with Vladimir Ashkenazy in 2002. So there appeared to be rapport.

The Violin Concerto was a pleasant and relatively easy work to absorb. It was the first time I had heard it. It tantalised me into observing its idiosyncrasies as outlined in the program notes. Dvorak’s work premiered in 1883, and has enjoyed success throughout Europe. And “although it is something of a Cinderella piece - relatively neglected in concert programs and the recording catalogue - it“ has been described “like a lark above the flowery fragrance of Bohemian meadows”. There is a delight in the airy use of Czech folk music and it has a sense of “great good humour.” Ms Jansen played with great physical conviction and was in close communication with Ashkenazy and his orchestra. It seemed, in watching, the interplay between the orchestra, conductor and soloist to be a mutual and loving relationship. Certainly the audience were intent on giving Ms Jansen a rousing and appreciative applause and did. This work was a pleasant warm up for the mighty experience that followed.

After the interval and some celebratory announcements concerning two of the orchestra members who have served long and well, Mr Ashkenazy took the microphone and simply stated that the 5th of March was the anniversary of the death of Stalin in 1953, (this been the 6th of March, 2009) and that the first two movements were written before the death and the last two after. Some musicologists believe that The Tenth Symphony of Shostakovich was conceived as early as 1945 “but it wasn’t until the 'thaw' that followed Stalin’s death that the symphony was completed. It had its premiere in Leningrad on the 17th Decmber,1953 and then in Moscow on the 29th of December.

“These days there is always debate about the meaning of a Shostakovitch symphony…. This symphony has been supposed about the Soviet leader, Josef Stalin” Shostakovitch himself wrote, “I wrote it right after Stalin’s death….The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin… [It is hard] to draw the image of leaders and teachers with music. But I gave Stalin his due, the shoe fits, as they say. I can’t be reproached for avoiding that ugly phenomenon”.

Certainly on Friday night the brooding and darkly menacing windings of the First movement presaged tensions of almost unbearable weight and terror. It is relatively long in endurance to the second and third movements. Then the orchestra physically prepared itself for a truly remarkable unleashing of music that spoke to me of terrors and fears of living under the totalitarian aegis of a desperate dictator like Stalin. The tempo, speed, of the playing was relentless and exhausting to watch and wonderfully horrifying to hear. The imprisonment of the poet Akhmatova in her apartment, as told in Alma de Groen’s THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW was recalled to mind as I sat there awash with the threatening violence of the music. Watching the whole of the orchestra, so physically and musically attuned to each other, in the pell-mell of the playing of the movement was truly great visual as well as aural beauty. I have not seen them as taut or concentrated in a long time.

The subsequent, and hinted release of the artist’s inhibitions, after Stalin’s death, is observable in the third and fourth movements. And although the fourth movement opens solemnly it moves to “a raucous, apparently high spirited conclusion.” The music and the orchestra were playing, probably as well, but the drama of the second movement had winded me and left me distracted.

Later, it has become a lesson, for me, to recall the boisterous youthfulness and, maybe, over confident artist in his scoring of LADY MACBETH of MTSENSK, that I have heard twice in the last week, and contrasted it with the Tenth Symphony written almost twenty years later, after he has lived in the Soviet state under the watchful eye of Stalin and his cohorts. The brashness, the juvenility has grown into a more discreet artist with a greater sophistication of his expression of his “politics” in the music.

The critics of his time were as usual divided in their reception of the work, and “the implications of the popular reception of this work continued to rankle…. (And so some) of the sternest critics deemed it expedient to revisit the Tenth Symphony and recapitulate its dangerous flaws… Inadvertently offer(ing) a plausible explanation for its tremendous resonance and impact: ’We all know the difficulties that workers have endured in capitalist countries. We survived the most brutal world war with its incalculable human toll. At home in the USSR, we were witnesses to the enormous harm caused by the cult of personality. For the past ten years, world history has developed in a way that has led for some people to the repression of simple, natural, joyful, and bright feelings, mental activity, and harmony. This repression and distraction of feelings, which fragments and splinters them, is temporary, of course, yet it is serious and deep. It is precisely this kind of repression that is conveyed in a number of Shostakovich’s works (the Tenth Symphony, in particular), and it is precisely in this that the music of the Tenth Symphony, with its psychological depression and imbalance, is a true document of the era.’” Of the era of Stalin or in my present era this music speaks to me passionately, today.

In the program notes Mr Ashkenazy speaks of attending the first performance of this Symphony in Leningrad. He goes on to say “In my modest opinion I think it’s maybe the most complete of his symphonies. It just said everything he wanted to say…. it’s simply the tragedy of the individual in impossible circumstances…. We knew what he wanted to say because we felt the same that he did, and we deciphered it emotionally and spiritually….. and he said it so eloquently. We were looking into a mirror of our existence. That’s what it was like. It’s reality. But reality can only be expressed by a genius, in musical terms.” Mr Ashkenazy in his “genius” spoke to me through the music of Shostakovich on Friday evening. It was startlingly dreadful and yet enlightening to see a glimmer of what it was to be a human in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House, on March 6th 2009.

The title of the program ASHKENAZY CONDUCTS SHOSTAKOVICH was no understatement. He certainly was “conducting“ the emotion and spirit of the composer as if they were one, and spoke directly to me, in our times, as no written text or production has for some time.

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