With works of Prokofiev, Weinberg, and Tchaikovsky, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and violin soloist Gidon Kremer under Juanjo Mena illustrated three moments in Russia’s musical history with flair and pathos on Thursday.
Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major Op. 25 (“Classical”) opened the evening with great vigor. Composed between 1916 and 1917 and premiered in 1918 in Petrograd with Prokofiev conducting, The “Classical,” is a joyful work in stark contrast to the dark historic events surrounding it. Russia was experiencing enormous turmoil, violence and change. World War I was taking its toll with the decimation of the Tsar’s army. Even more significantly though were the great political and social upheavals as a result of the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks established a new government and a civil war broke out. Prokofiev and many other artists fled.
An homage to the orchestral compositions of Mozart and Haydn, Prokofiev’s first symphony mirrors his stringent conservatoire training. The work follows the traditional four-movement structure with a Sonata-Allegro form first movement, gavotte and trio in the third and a cheerful, vivacious final movement. At the same time though, this anachronistic throwback to Viennese Classicism explores extended tonal relationships. Neo-Classic in style, the symphony makes a strange amalgamation of the old and the new, the steadfast and the exciting.
Mena’s interpretation certainly felt lively and the orchestra didn’t hesitate for a moment to follow his lead. In the nicely shaped phrasing in the opening moment, the orchestra, and in particular the strings, responded to the conductor with a refined delicacy we don’t always expect from performances of the 20th-century Russian orchestral canon. The second movement glided by as a stately and assured larghetto. Performed with elegant dovetailing between strings and winds, the well-placed articulations highlighted Prokofiev’s occasional expansion of tonal palette. The Gavotte delighted; here we had a typical Viennese style dance with just a hint of a samovar. This came in stark contrast to the controlled frenzy of an exuberant final movement. Mena cued without over-conducting and the orchestra needed no encouragement to fly.
Composed in 1959 and rarely performed in the United States, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Violin Concerto Op. 67 owes much of its existence to his friend Dmitri Shostakovich and its renaissance to violinist Gidon Kremer, who performed the American premiere of the work in 2015. As Harlow Robinson’s notes detail, Weinberg and Shostakovich had shared experiences of terrible hardship and were very close as friends and fellow artists: “Both were survivors of some of the most terrible atrocities of the 20th century: revolution, civil war, fascism, genocide, persecution by Stalin’s secret police, a cataclysmic Nazi invasion, evacuation, public vilification, rehabilitation, the premature and often tragic loss of family and friends.” A great mentor to Weinberg, Shostakovich encouraged him to move to Moscow in 1943, and later arranged for Weinberg’s release from prison after he had been arrested by the Soviet authorities for his “Jewish bourgeois nationalism.” Shostakovich championed the prolific Weinberg, stating that the Violin Concerto was “a beautiful work, in the true meaning of the word.”
Gidon Kremer, in fine form, displayed by turns forceful and sweet playing. The violin sang at some moments and raged in others. The composition is not retiring in character, nor was Kremer’s expert handling of its technical and emotional complexities. By turns lyrical and jarring, a central theme nevertheless governs the work. Kremer explored the entire scope of the instrument’s range in transforming the motif from one incarnation to the next. Unfortunately at times the orchestra covered some of the soloist’s phrase endings.
The second and third movements possessed surprising moments of sweetness, a welcome relief from a narrative of nervous energy. This begs the question—how much does our knowledge of a composer’s life effect our impression of the work? In the orchestration, I heard the need to escape from threatening forces with brief moments of respite before the next struggle presented itself. The third movement’s moments of Shostakovian harmonies wove seamlessly into the texture. Whether consciously or not, this salute to his friend did not go unnoticed. The finale began with a triumphant affirmation of life—and Kremer did not disappoint. His sheer vitality was breathtaking. One gets the impression that every note is a moment of personal communication with the orchestra. Whether playing a cadenza, sustaining a stratospherically high note or seamlessly running through passages of triple and quadruple stops, everything is presented with grace and élan. The Weinberg can be an ordeal, but in Kremer’s hands it proved transformative.
We were treated to a brief encore, Kremer’s own transcription of the Cello Prelude Op.100 No. 5 by Weinberg. Once again, the music cried and soared, and in this soloist’s hands, the audience met another unknown gem of the repertoire.
Tchaikovsky’s wrote his Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36 on the heels of Swan Lake in 1877 partially in response to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; it also testifies to his increasingly painful personal and professional life. In a letter to confidante and fellow composer, Sergei Taneyev, Tchaikovsky illuminates what was to represent an ongoing conflict in his symphonic compositions—whether the Russian spirit could be contained within the confines of Germanic formalism:
Of course, my symphony is program music, but it would be impossible to give the program in words… But ought this not always to be the case with a symphony, the most lyrical of musical forms? Ought it not to express all those things for which words cannot be found but which nevertheless arise in the heart and cry out for expression?
After a strong start in February 1877, Tchaikovsky took increasingly longer breaks from the Fourth Symphony as his personal life disintegrated, and yet the symphony alludes to cyclical forms, suggesting cohesion across the movements. He relinquished the tight Germanic order that governed much of the mid 19th-century symphony in order to make room for Russian drama. However, echoes of this earlier Teutonic formalism remain evident in the cyclical structure of Tchaikovsky’s manipulations of motif and timbre as they contrast across the four movements.
The first movement’s epic scale and returning ‘fate’ motif reflect the composer’s Beethovenian aspirations. The brass fanfares, heralding doom are then replaced in the second movement by a different expression of anguish via a plaintive oboe solo in the opening of the second movement. The descending, sighing motif is passed through the orchestra, finding brief moments of solace before returning to understated, fragmented echoes of the opening descending line. The third movement’s light-heartened scherzo is perhaps the most balletic movement of the symphony – less representational with dancing pizzicato and unexpected exclamatory flourish from the piccolo. The finale revisits Tchaikovsky’s ‘fate’ motif, which threatens to oppress an emerging salute to Russian nationalism via the quotation and subsequent development of the folk song “The Little Birch Tree”.
From the opening brass fanfare, the playing engaged the audience. The richness of sound and clear woodwind solos in the first movement brought a wholesome affect to the work. Well balanced interactions between strings and winds complemented this. The oboe solo in the second movement rang out with a pure sound and the celli blossomed with a particularly gracious full-bodied sound and neatly crafted phrases. The whole string section deserves special mention for immaculately placed pizzicati in the third movement. Mena led a tight ship, resulting in clarity and precision as well as freshness and fervor. The fourth movement yielded more controlled frenzy. A powerful opening with the orchestra at full force, this finale acted almost as a resolution to the Weinberg. Finally, ‘fate’ was conquered and a semblance of order restored as the work raced to its final cadence.
Georgia Luikens is a violinist who holds undergraduate degrees in music and English literature from the University of New South Wales. She has a Masters in musicology from Brandeis University where she is a doctoral candidate.