Benjamin Zander closed the 2010-2011 season of the Boston Philharmonic with an all-Russian program performed three times: Saturday, April 30, in Jordan Hall, and the two following days (at 3pm and 7pm respectively) in Sanders Theatre. I heard the second performance.
As originally announced, the program was to consist of two works from the middle third of the twentieth century: Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2 Op. 126, with the remarkable Russian cellist Natalia Gutman as soloist, and a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet score to Romeo and Juliet. Wisely, a short introductory piece was added as an opener: the prelude to Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina, subtitled “Dawn over the Moscow River.” This quiet, lyrical music (orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov) allowed latecomers to be seated without interrupting the concerto. It also provided a baseline to attune the ear to the lush sweetness of folk-oriented Russian romanticism, to which the remainder of the program, especially the Shostakovich, stood in sharp contrast.
Shostakovich wrote two cello concertos, both for Mstislav Rostropovich, just seven years apart, yet they could hardly be more different. The earlier one has become a concert standard, while the later one is rarely performed. The First makes frequent use of a variant of the composer’s musical motto “DSCH” (or, in musical pitches, D, E-flat, C, B-natural); in the concerto this figure is opened up into an E-minor triad with a chromatic ending (G, E, B, B-flat), but the characteristic rhythm links it unmistakably with the DSCH motto.
The Second Concerto is drier in its sonorities, with few moments in which the soloist has broad expressive strokes; most of the work is played with a staccato feeling, often reinforced because the cello has significant dialogues with various percussion instruments, usually in a subdued dynamic without significant resonance, sounding purposely compressed, as if to avoid calling attention to whatever it is saying. It is hard to hear this music and not think of the many photographs of Shostakovich at this stage of his life — far and away the most famous and highly honored of Soviet composers — when he seemed determined never to reveal an ounce of personal emotion. The music is as poker-faced as its composer.
Gutman’s performance of this opening Lento was so sustained and intense, even in its lack of grandiose gestures, that it drew the listener into its hypnotic thrall. Only a handful of times does the cello solo sing out in a broad lyrical phrase — brief, and quickly ende — suggesting a deep ache that does not dare express itself. The lamenting character of the music, built of descending semitone figures, with a sonority rarely rising above the character of chamber music, created a deeply internalized mood.
Shostakovich’s late music makes extensive use of slow tempi. Even the so-called Scherzo in the middle of the concerto is only marked Allegretto (like the finale, into which it eventually runs without break). Any potential humor in the Scherzo is etched in acid, with crisp staccato woodwind accompanimen
The percussionists of the Boston Philharmonic received well-earned applause for their extensive dialogues (or arguments) with the solo cello — especially bass drum in the first movement , tambourine in the second, and snare drum in the finale. And Zander kept his forces exceptionally well balanced to support, but not overwhelm, the all-important narrative of Gutman’s cello, with the dry, rhythmic articulations of the winds and the darker surgings, like suppressed emotion, of the strings (especially in the lower registers).
Most of all, though, the power of the performance came from the intense focus of Natalia Gutman on the “story” that Shostakovich has to tell — a story that she clearly understands from the inside.
To balance the purposely “inexpressive” expressivity of the Shostakovich, Zander chose an extended suite from the most successful of all Soviet ballets, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Hard as it is to credit today, when the ballet is loved and performed widely, serious difficulties — not least a ballerina assigned the role of Juliet who disliked the music for what was to become one of her greatest roles — delayed performance. In order to get the music performed, Prokofiev produced an orchestral suite and then a second and a third. Because they were each conceived simply as concert pieces with an aim to provide variety, they offered no clue as to the overall shape of the ballet’s dramatic score.
Zander made the welcome choice to select music from each of the three suites and to arrange it in the order of the full ballet score. The result is a concert work that, though much shorter than the full ballet, is an excellent representation of the main lines of the drama, with some of the divertissement material interspersed where it would naturally appear for variety and color. The result is far more satisfying in performance than simply hearing the hodge-podge that makes up each of the three suites.
Romeo and Juliet was by no means Prokofiev’s first ballet. He was fully at home in the dance theater, and the score is gestural in musical conception, inviting the listener (and, of course, the choreographer) to imagine ways that the human body can respond to his clearly delineated melodic lines and rhythms.
That “gestural” quality obtained also in the Boston Philharmonic’s performance, with crisp playing that brought the images — though here only the mind’s eye — to life. This précis of the full score allowed the imagination and beauty of Prokofiev’s music to make its effect in the concert hall, especially when enlivened so thoroughly as here, by Zander & Co.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.