IN: Reviews

Weilerstein’s Fearless Shostakovich


Alisa Weilerstein brought a fiercely focused fearlessness to her playing of Dimitri Shostakovich’s 1959 Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat, op. 107 that almost eclipsed her accompanying ensemble, though that didn’t seem to bother the visiting St. Petersburg Philharmonic players or conductor. Indeed, their rapt attention to her playing and interpretation on April 10 at Symphony Hall in a Celebrity Series of Boston concert was fascinating to watch and to hear. I’m not sure how this collaboration came about, but it surely must have been quite the occasion for Weilerstein. Here she was, a young American woman who graduated from the Young Artist Program at The Cleveland Institute of Music and who also in May 2004 had obtained a degree in Russian History at Columbia in the midst of some of Russia’s finest musicians, all of whom likely feel a kinship with Shostakovich. The Celebrity Series of Boston’s program book states that she is on a fifteen-city U.S. tour with this world-esteemed orchestra. What a wonderful opportunity for her! One wonders what other concerti she may be playing.

A bit more about Weilerstein: she first discovered that she wanted to play the cello at age four “after her grandmother assembled a makeshift instrument out of cereal boxes for her to play while she was sick with the chicken pox. After convincing her parents to buy her a real cello, she showed an natural affinity for the instrument and performed her first public concert six months later” (at age four and a half, according to the artist’s website ). So today, at age 27, she has been playing in public for some twenty-three years. No wonder, then, that her self-assurance is so high.

The Shostakovich concerto she played with her Russian colleagues was a daunting choice. After all, this work was premiered in Leningrad on October 4, 1959, played by this orchestra conducted by its revered Music Director Yevgeny Mravinsky, with Mstislav Rostropovich as soloist. Yet, if anything, one would believe that this portentous history only served to move Weilerstein to greater heights of interpretive acumen and technical virtuosity. Not once did she detectably slip, and her arc of concentration was uninterruptedly complete from first notes she played until the end. And this is no small concerto – its demands of emotional involvement and technical skill are formidable. Combining elements of black humor and gritty cynicism, it asks of its players an unblinking and straightforward focus. It concurrently paints the huge emotional turmoil that Shostakovich felt in his bones and soul as his country emerged from the savagery of World War II and was faced with a chillingly unpredictable future. All of this is audible in the music, and the orchestra, several members of which likely suffered through the aforementioned turmoil, and Weilerstein projected all of the raw emotion and pained contemplation as effectively as one might wish. Her playing of the concerto’s lengthy and far-reaching cadenza held all present in total thrall. In short, this concerto performance was a triumph, and one of two highlights of the afternoon.

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic was founded in the late days of the Tsarist regimes in 1897 as Alexander III’s court orchestra. It has a starry past. Tchaikovsky premiered his “Pathetique” Symphony shortly before his death, and the orchestra gave the first Russian performances of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and Ein Heldenleben, Mahler’s First Symphony, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Among its conductors were world-renowned musicians such as Richard Strauss, Alexander Glasunov, Arthur Nikisch, and Serge Koussevitzky, the latter two of whom became Music Directors of our own Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1918, directed by the composer, the orchestra premiered the “Classical” Symphony of Prokofieff, and in 1926, Shostakovich’s precocious Symphony No. 1 was given its premiere. From 1938, and through the ensuing fifty years, the demanding directorship of Evgeny Mravinsky helped spread the orchestra’s fame throughout the world. It premiered many important works by Shostakovich, and its players’ virtuosity, especially of its string section, became the talk of the western world.

That string section virtuosity, still very much in evidence, was audible throughout Sunday’s concert. Yuri Temirkanov, the Orchestra’s Principal Conductor since 1988, is a maestro of restrained movement, yet at all times his wishes were evident in the orchestra’s playing. Clearly well rehearsed, they played more often as one organic aggregation than individual players, though solos from within their ranks deserve mentioning.

Conductor and players began with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, op. 36. Fittingly, it turned out, not only for the impending Easter holiday, but because this orchestra had given the premiere performance of this music on December 15, 1888, under the composer’s direction. Many of this ensemble’s felicities were immediately apparent, and it was heartening to see the smiles passing between Temirkanov and his players, as if they were jointly embracing an old friend, which of course they were. The Overture’s beginning was taken very slowly and reverently, presenting two ecclesiastical chant-based themes from the Russian Orthodox church. This ritualistic and incense-scented atmosphere cannily set the stage for the ensuing brisk Allegro, colored by the ingenious orchestration for which this composer is justly famed. Temirkanov carefully marshaled his forces and saved his fortissimos for the Overture’s conclusion, where they were hair-raisingly effective.

After the aforementioned Shostakovich concerto and intermission, Temirkanov and his orchestra returned to play Johannes Brahms’s darkly hued Symphony No.4 in E minor, op. 98. This was to be a somewhat old-fashioned yet welcome essay of this music, non-interventionist with much emphasis on middle voices and a less spiky and more legato general overlay and sense of line. While this might have created a murky overall texture, the result was rather one of hearing the inner workings of a symphony that is often played surficially, with mostly brilliant top and deep bottom. Here we heard the often-underplayed middle much more clearly and to good effect. For instance, the big cello theme of the first movement had the violas’ countermelody ardently played as equal partner in duet, a most welcome illumination. Bronze tone highlighted First Horn Igor Karzov’s flawless solo. And, the Symphony’s second movement especially benefited from Temirnakov’s mahogany-hued limning of Brahmsian sonorities.

Temirkanov set a very bright tempo for the third movement, so fast that I feared for the orchestra’s holding together for a particularly treacherously scored set of measures to come a bit later, and indeed, even this great string section had a bit of a snarl getting through when it arrived. But this was short-lived, and the movement’s overall impression was of bracingly high spirits.

The Symphony’s fourth movement is a passacaglia, and most of today’s interpreters favor maintaining a consistent pulse throughout, perhaps in reaction to the taffy-pulling changes in tempi all too familiar from early-twentieth-century renditions. Temirnakov favored a variegated set of tempi, slowing when expression seemed to call for it, and I found this approach a good compromise. In particular it allowed a very espressivo playing of the famous flute solo, here beautifully and sensitively offered by Principal Marina Vorozhtsova. A quickened tempo at its conclusion led to a powerfully realized finale.

But there was more — in fact, the second highlight of the afternoon. After being called back for his third curtain call, Maestro Temirkanov signaled an encore, and from the complete silence which preceded it, and, as if from another world those wonderful strings began to quietly intone the opening measures of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The eloquence of this reading, leading its rich polyphony inexorably to its monumental climax, was a wonder to hear, as was the beautifully controlled final diminuendo. Five minutes of pure magic. I wished, during those minutes, that this orchestra might have performed the entire Elgar score in this concert, perhaps in place of the Brahms which, while quite fine, wasn’t as special as the music that had book-ended it. Further ovations moved Temirnakov to bow yet again, and then signal to his players that it was time to leave. Many in the audience did so as well, but reluctantly. It had been a special afternoon in Symphony Hall, indeed.

Some historical information was gleaned from the Boston Celebrity Series program book’s excellent annotation by Dr. Richard E. Rodda, © 2011. Also, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic’s website is filled with interesting data here .

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 31 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 32 years.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The St. Petersburg Philharmonic was founded in the late days of the Tsarist regimes in 1897 as Alexander III’s court orchestra. It has a starry past. Tchaikovsky premiered his “Pathetique” Symphony shortly before his death…”

    Tchaikovsky died in 1893,and the Pathetique was premiered a couple of weeks earlier… For that matter, Alexander III died in 1894, so that 1897 date is evidently wrong. Wikipedia says 1882, for what it’s worth.

    Comment by Steven Ledbetter — April 12, 2011 at 2:49 pm

  2. Steven – you are correct, of course. The date IS wrong. I misread the Orchestra’s official biography. There it clearly states that the Orchestra was founded in 1882.

    Mea culpa!

    John Ehrlich

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — April 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm

  3. Definitely a concert I’d have been keen to attend if I were still living in Boston. Question: How would you compare the overall sonority of this orchestra to the way it sounded during the peak years of the Mravinsky regime — basing your findings on, say, the classic Leningrad PO recordings led by Mravinsky which DG taped in 1961)?

    Comment by Chicago Steve — April 17, 2011 at 10:33 pm

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