Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Beethoven
- Shostakovich Chamber Symphony
- Vaughan Williams Concerto in F minor for Tuba and Orchestra
- Beethoven Symphony No. 7
What one has to admire most about Jaap van Zweden, the young guest conductor for this weeks CSO offering, is his great seriousness of musical purpose, expressed keenly from the podium, and largely executed by an ensemble that is, perhaps unfortunately, not his own. In fact, the Dutch van Zweden has been music director of the Dallas Symphony since 2008 and is due to take up a position in Hong Kong later this year.
Nowhere is this better displayed than in the evenings’ first offering, Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony for Strings in C minor Op.110a, actually an arrangement by Rudolf Barshai, of the composer’s String Quartet no.8. It is a kind of surrealist fantasy, ascending from the very much grounded though eerily poignant statement of the principle theme, heard first in only the basses and celli, and then, little by little, introduced in the higher strings, with sections being added in ascending order. The harmonies are very warm and clear. The theme itself, really a mere 4 note motive, is Shostakovich’s musical monogram: The letters D S C H is represented by their tonal equivalents in the German system of musical notation: Since S is our Eb and H, our B natural, the monograph comes to D Eb C B. In the opening Largo, this is nearly all we hear. The motive is developed very tenderly—especially by 1960s standards—and in multiple keys, even, for a short time, in a serene, heart warming major key. Before long, we are thrust into a torrid, racing sort of Bridge section, much more of what we think of as typical Shostakovich. It is almost a re-start of the melodic development of the Largo, but in an entirely different idiom. But, “ ah, that is hardly suitable for so a warm-hearted piece”, the composer seems to be saying, “let us be merry!”
Thus, we move into the allegretto which, for all its mirth, cannot quite conceal a tincture of the sinister. Indeed, the penultimate Largo is bookended by an often repeated, haunting passage in which the first three notes of the monograph are sounded, but instead of settling comfortably on a B natural, we are thrust a perfect 5th upwards, before descending a half step for 3 riveting repeated notes, with many of the strings playing in unison, and probably marked double-forte. The final Largo is melancholic: It is as if we have no more energy left to fight the great battles of life, and so we settle down into a final, grateful rest, though perhaps not as serene a rest we might have hoped. This piece alone is worth the entire evening.
With Vaughn Williams’ symphonic music one is almost tempted to say, dismissingly, if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. That is not to say they are not often very pleasant to listen to, and this rarely heard Tuba Concerto, with the CSO’s own Gene Pokorny as soloist, is no exception. One has to stop oneself from laughing at the sound of the solo Tuba, particularly in the low register. But comedy is certainly not antithetical to nice music. The fact that the strings are hardly ever playing without some sort of wind or horn accompaniment lends a distinct suavity to the sound—apparent in much of Vaughn Williams.
From the jolly march that is the opening prelude, and allegro moderato, we feel convinced that Vaughn Williams is determined to write everything in good cheer. In the Romanza, however, we revert back to Vaughn Williams’ usual realm of the unflinchingly nostalgic. Even without conjuring any particular memory, Vaughn Williams’ idiom seems to carry with it a sort of quintessential nostalgia. It is the feeling that in a turbulent, unreliable, and sometimes ugly world, there is always a warm fire to come home to, and memories of childhood—perhaps of old England—to keep in our hearts. It is certainly not one of more profound sentiments ever evoked in music, but can hardly be called un-pleasant.
In some ways the marquee presentation of the evening, Beethoven’s Symphony no.7 in A major, opus 92, was the least impressive. Perhaps it is because we all have heard it countless times before, particularly the second movement Allegretto, most recently a prominent backdrop to the climactic scene of the Academy-Award winning film The King’s Speech (2011). I have never heard anyone take nearly so fast and sustained a tempo as Van Zweden does here, and that includes Toscanini’s 1939 recording with the NBC Orchestra. It all seems to work rather well in the opening introduction, marked Allegro Sostenuto: This beautifully simplistic introduction so often feels lifeless and dull, sacrilege to what are some of the most brilliantly serene passages in the entire work. Yet Van Zweden, by virtue of his fast tempo, and grand impetuosity of musical drive, manages quite well. I was particularly impressed by the sense of forward motion lent to the first movement vivace theme, which out of context could easily be mistaken for a 4th movement Rondo. In van Zweden’s version, one gets the sense there is more to come; and of course there is.
However, the incredibly famous allegretto is much less successful. Here the fast tempo feels inappropriate, even destructive at times. Although van Zweden appears very intent on getting good articulation out of the strings, it comes, at least on this occasion, at the expense of a rich and satisfying tone. Unlike the 5th Symphony, the main interest of Beethoven’s 7th is not rhythmic or motive-based, but harmonic, and melodic. It is not the clever ways in which Beethoven treats the second-movements ostinato theme that excites us, but how this is melodically built upon and developed, and how accompaniment lines of very different timbres and textures are added to it. In this sense the 7th is one of Beethoven’s more accessible symphonies.
The third movement scherzo-trio, marked Presto, was still less successful . The orchestra, even more so than in previous movements, sound as if there are about to trip over themselves. All sections, but particularly the strings, seem uncertain of being able meet Van Zweden’s unorthodox tempo demands, and either attempt to anticipate their entrances, or come in slightly behind, as if to avoid the greater pitfall of being early. Above all, the music does not sing, and at such a tempo, it hardly breaths either.
Whatever anyone wishes to say to praise CSO strings’ virtuosity, and particularly the depth of their brass, they certainly do not have a warm sound. And the strings don’t always have an extraordinarily full one either. Particularly in the high register the strings can sound rather stark. For Vaughn Williams, this is not largely un-problematic. For Shostakovich, it is quite possibly the ideal. Yet in Beethoven, it can be rather grating. All things considered, however, the program is extremely rich, and very much recommended.
Gabriel Lord Kalcheim
Date Reviewed: May 16, 2012
At the CSO.org