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War, Terror…and Yes, Uplift


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hung over the concert Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra presented at Symphony Hall Sunday afternoon. Zander began by sharing the thoughts an orchestra member had written to him about the current crisis. He then led the BPO in the Ukrainian national anthem, whose text starts with the words “Ukraine has not yet perished.”

The program itself, a 20th-century trio, was already steeped in political turmoil. Both Ravel’s La valse (1920) and Elgar’s Cello Concerto (1919) followed hard on the end of World War I and seemed to be commenting on the collapse of European civilization. Shostakovich composed his Fifth Symphony in 1937, at the height of Stalin’s “Great Terror”; Soviet authorities accepted the piece as a celebration, though just what Shostakovich was celebrating is still debated today. It made for a sober afternoon of music, but the performances from Zander, soloist Zlatomir Fung, and the orchestra were uplifting.

Ravel himself didn’t consider La valse a response to World War I, noting that he had set the piece (it was intended as a ballet) in 1855. His first thoughts about it seem to date back to 1906: he was contemplating a symphonic poem called Vienne, or Wien (French and German for Vienna), in honor of the waltz and of Johann Strauss II. By the time he got down to serious composition, it was 1919 and he had a commission for a ballet from Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Diaghilev rejected the result; Francis Poulenc, who was present, recalled the impresario saying, “Ravel, it’s a masterpiece . . . but it’s not a ballet . . . It’s the portrait of a ballet . . . It’s the painting of a ballet.” Those words created a permanent rift between Ravel and Diaghilev.

If La valse was a ballet, it was, at 13 minutes, a short one. In 1951, George Balanchine turned it into a half-hour dance piece by adding Ravel’s 1911 Valses nobles et sentimentales at the start. Balanchine also made it a dance of death in which a woman in white is seduced by a figure in black. In 1958, Frederick Ashton, sticking with the 13-minute original, produced something closer to what Ravel had in mind when he told a Dutch newspaper, “It is a dancing, whirling, almost hallucinatory ecstasy, an increasingly passionate and exhausting whirlwind of dancers, who are overcome and exhilarated by nothing but ‘the waltz.’”

La valse isn’t quite that innocent. The waltz tunes of the first half alternate between teasing and tender, though in one section an unsettling, almost vulgar outburst from the brass and timpani warns of what’s to come. The second half reprises the first, but rhythms grow erratic, instrumentation ranges from unexpected to inappropriate, polytonality is hinted at, and the prominence of brass, timpani, and other percussion (cymbals, triangle, castanets, tam-tam, bass drum) make explicit what earlier was only suggested. The tempo quickens; by the end you could almost be listening to Stravinsky’s Sacre. It’s not the sound of the Austro-Hungarian Empire being destroyed in 1918, rather the sound of that empire imploding in 1906.

What we heard as Zander began was the sound of a fretful youngster in the audience; unfazed, he halted the orchestra after a few notes, refocused, and began again. His moderate tempo, along with bassoons, created a spooky atmosphere and gave the players room to be expressive. We got gentle, lilting, languorous waltz tunes, some playful, some dreamy, with glowing solos from piccolo (Joon Park), flute (Grace Helmke), oboe (Coleton Morgan), clarinet (Tristen Broadfoot), and bassoon (Evan Judson). The first irruption from the brass came as a shock, Zander abruptly accelerating, and after that innocence gave way to seductive insinuation. The second half brought the timpani into greater relief; a fine trumpet solo (Sarah Heimberg) signaled the sprint to the climax, which was kaleidoscopic, and then the final pages, which weren’t dizzily frenetic so much as lush and lusty.              

The Cello Concerto was the last of Elgar’s major works, coming some 20 years after the Enigma Variations, The Dream of Gerontius, and the first Pomp and Circumstance march, and a dozen after the First Symphony. In the wake of the First World War, his music had gone out of fashion, and the under-rehearsed premiere of the Cello Concerto, in October 1919, did nothing to restore his reputation. The piece didn’t become popular until Jacqueline du Pré recorded it with John Barbirolli (who had played in the cello section at the premiere) in 1965.

Rehearsal difficulties aside, the English public in 1919 may not have been ready for a bittersweet lyricism that bore the scars of war. The concerto opens with a craggy cello recitative in E minor that puts the question to the orchestra. The woodwinds answer, the cello essays a scale, and the time signature shifts from 4/4 into the lilting 9/8 Moderato of the famous big first subject. This gets tossed back and forth between cello and orchestra, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and then the more animated E-major middle section, in 12/8, lapses into reverie. The return of the initial theme is truncated before the cello lets it fade away.

The Allegro molto scherzo spends a third of its four and a half minutes in lazy buzzing before the bees fly off in earnest, and even then they’re less than industrious, pausing from time to time in lyrical thought and here too there are lyrical interludes, almost flashbacks. The Adagio is a five-minute meditation on a single theme that leads directly into the closing Allegro. This, like the scherzo, has trouble starting up, and though at 12 minutes it’s the concerto’s longest movement, it’s oddly indecisive. The dotted main theme bustles with forced gaiety; a march version in the cello goes nowhere, as does a hopeful second theme. The cello starts reflecting on the Adagio theme and then on its opening cello recitative. The forward-looking main theme, when it does return to herald a better future, lasts barely 30 seconds.

Zander’s instrument, before he turned to conducting, was the cello, and his programs with the BPO and the BPYO have often featured cello concertos. The Elgar was on the BPYO’s very first program, in November 2012, with Alisa Weilerstein as soloist and her husband-to-be, Venezuelan Rafael Payare, as guest conductor. On Sunday Zander had as his soloist the gold medalist from the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition. Zlatomir Fung was the first American to take the cello division in 28 years, and the youngest ever cello winner.

As with La valse, the first notes came from a young audience member (not necessarily the same one). Zander turned and made a remark to the audience that elicited laughter; perhaps he was contemplating the youngster as a future vocal soloist. Fung’s first notes, when we did hear them, offered ample evidence of what the Tchaikovsky jury heard: deep, golden, just a hint of gruff or grit. He and Zander didn’t wallow in the opening Adagio section; when he did slow, the line didn’t sag. The big Moderato melody was resolute, with an unaffected nostalgia; Fung and Zander seemed to be swapping reminiscences. The glorious tutti climax brought memories of the Enigma Variations finale. The scherzo went at a light and airy buzz, Fung underlining the cello’s initial reluctance to leave the world of the opening movement.

Michael Steinberg’s thoughtful program essay on the concerto describes the “songful” Adagio as “a wistful Schumann romance rather than an outburst of Mahlerian anguish” and adds, “it tends to bring out the worst in cellists.” It brought out the best in Fung, who, at a proper Adagio tempo, offered a noble elegy for the dead rather than a lament for the whole of Western civilization. The hippity-hoppity main subject of the finale, in Zander’s measured reading, sounded fuller-bodied and more persuasive than it often does. All the same, Fung held back, meditated, not seeing that main subject as the way forward. There was sorrow but not self-pity in the retreat into the new theme, then the Adagio, and finally the first-movement recitative. The finish spoke of determination rather than conviction.

Fung also took the gold medal for enunciation in introducing an encore. His “Thank you all so much for being here” was clearly audible even from the back of the house, and so was his announcement that he would play the Sarabande from Bach’s First Cello Suite. As in the Elgar Adagio, he was simple and unaffected. I was left wishing Bach had written a longer Sarabande.   

Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was a success at its Leningrad premiere in 1934; it became a fixture in Leningrad and Moscow and spread to international stages. But Stalin’s attendance at a 1936 Moscow performance led to the infamous Pravda review “Muddle instead of Music” and put the composer at risk. He shelved his already written Fourth Symphony and attempted to placate the Party with his Fifth, which premiered in Leningrad in 1937. After the symphony’s first Moscow performance, a journalist suggested to Shostakovich the subtitle “a Soviet artist’s practical and creative response to just criticism.” Shostakovich accepted it. The criticism he received for Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was “just” in the sense that his disaffection for Stalin’s Soviet Russia was all too obvious. In the Fifth he figured out how to write like a “responsible” Soviet composer and still say what he had to say. We can’t know what the Soviet authorities thought of the piece; they may have suspected they were its villains rather than its victors. But given the ovation the Fifth received at the premiere — reportedly 45 minutes, as long as the work itself — there wasn’t much they could do but accept it as Shostakovich’s return to the fold of Soviet aesthetics.

The score says otherwise. The opening Moderato has a first subject with two themes, one of which stalks the other. The second subject draws on the first, as if to suggest musical themes in the Soviet Union were rationed. But the composer is not allowed to meditate (or grieve) in private: the development coopts the exposition’s modest elements into galloping trumpets and a goose-stepping march. The five-minute Allegretto is a parody waltz/ländler with a strong debt to Mahler’s barbed Des Knaben Wunderhorn song “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt.” The Largo, with the violins divided into three parts and the violas and cellos into two each, suggests the choirs of an Orthodox requiem — though Shostakovich was not a believer. It peaks on yet another theme that hammers away on the same note; then celesta and harps tinkle out the coda as if it were the music-box version of a child’s prayer. 

Shostakovich still had to “justify” the symphony with what would read as a celebratory finale. The opening theme’s tub-thumping optimism is undercut by references to Bizet’s Carmen (“Prends garde à toi”), to the scene in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov where Pimen sits down to write the truth, and to a song based on a Pushkin text, “Vozrozhdenie” (“Rebirth”), that Shostakovich had written a few months before. The second subject, for solo trumpet, seems to be getting strangled by the orchestra, and the end of the exposition turns into the kind of silent-movie piano accompaniment that as a young man Shostakovich used to improvise at theaters, as if nodding to Party musical taste. The “development” doesn’t develop any themes; instead it harks back, in muted strains, to the people’s music from the first three movements. The tub thumping, when it returns, hammers home a message. Party officials and the premiere’s audience may not have understood that message the same way.

Zander has not made a specialty of Shostakovich the way he has of Mahler, but he has made two recordings of the Fifth, one with the BPO recorded in Jordan Hall in 1994 and one with the BPYO taken from a live performance at Carnegie Hall in 2013. He last played the piece with the BPO in 2012. His general adherence to Shostakovich’s metronome markings has invariably produced good results.

Sunday’s reading started out sweet but apprehensive; the tone was set by the ominous growl of the bassoons when the stalking theme returned. If Zander’s tempo seemed a bit faster than the metronome mark of 76 quavers, pretty much everyone else’s does as well. Corinne Foley’s crucial oboe solo made the proper impact; so did the stabbing notes that persist to the end of the symphony. Colors were somber but not gray. Tension remained high in the more animated second subject, with its poignant flute (Joon Park) and clarinet (Alexander Erlich-Herzog) solos, and then thumping piano (Gaeun Lee) led into a development that was rich as well as raucous. Zander maintained clarity in the canons for strings and horns, and the climax, where the recapitulation literally wrenches the material from the development, screamed protest. Flute and horn (Graham Lovely) made for a melting duet; the coda featured nocturnal strings, flute, piccolo (Grace Helmke), and first violin (Eric Chen) all soloing on the oboe motif, and then Lee’s hopeful closing celesta, with ghostly trumpets and timpani playing the stalking theme underneath.

Zlatomir Fung and Benjamin Zander

Zander’s Allegretto brought heavy cellos and basses and winds that squawked and shrieked, sarcastic but not ugly, before settling into Shostakovich’s depiction of the Party waltzing. The solo violin and flute of the Trio made a valiant if vain attempt to give the proceedings some dignity. The Adagio surged with passion; Zander’s reading called to mind the opening movement of Mahler’s Tenth, which was first performed in 1924, though I don’t know whether Shostakovich had heard it by 1937. The four-note idea for first violins got due prominence and was later echoed by the xylophone, presaging the finale’s hammering away on the same note. There was more fine soloing from flute in the second subject and from oboe, clarinet, and flute in the development’s pastoral section; the recapitulation wound down with eerie high violins and then the celesta and harps in the coda.

Tempo in the finale of the Fifth has been a puzzle since the premiere. The general outline is clear: like the first movement, the finale is marked to start at a moderate pace, gradually accelerate to the midpoint, then decelerate till it finishes at close to the original tempo. But for some reason Shostakovich wrote the final mark, the one for the coda, as 184 quavers to the minute rather than the 92 crotchets you’d expect. This decision led to printed scores (some still available today) listing the mark as 184 crotchets to the minute — twice as fast.

The forces who gave the 1937 premiere, Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic, made the symphony’s first recording as well, early in 1938. Mravinsky was Shostakovich’s choice for the premiere and rehearsed with the composer, so it’s no surprise that his recording observes the composer’s markings, more or less. Leopold Stokowski gave the American premiere in 1939 and recorded the symphony that same year. He takes not just the coda but the entire finale at a gallop, and that tradition continued in recordings by Dimitri Mitropoulos (1952) and Leonard Bernstein (1959). Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic made theirs (in Symphony Hall) after touring the Soviet Union in the summer of 1959; Shostakovich was present when they performed the Fifth in Moscow and afterward remarked that it worked very well. Perhaps he was being polite to his American guest; perhaps he saw Bernstein’s energetic interpretation as a viable alternative. Whichever, the popularity of Bernstein’s recording and the speed of his finale — 8:55 as opposed to a norm of 11 to 12 minutes — raised doubts about Shostakovich’s intentions. Bernstein may have thought the finale sounded even more hollow at a fast tempo (and Shostakovich may have agreed), but to some listeners, his interpretation suggested the composer had written a genuine celebration of Stalin’s Soviet Russia.   

That can hardly have been Shostakovich’s intent. It wasn’t just his Fourth Symphony that “disappeared” in 1937 — many of his relations, friends, and colleagues were taken away. In Solomon Volkov’s controversial Shostakovich memoir Testimony, the composer, speaking of the Fifth’s finale, is quoted as asking, “What exultation can there be?” The mundane, timpani-saturated swagger that follows the Largo’s delicate prayer is his answer — regardless of tempo. On Sunday, moreover, Zander’s very moderate starting tempo undercut any thoughts of festivity, suggesting instead the people’s slow trudge. The second-subject trumpet solo (Jon-Michael Taylor) broke through the orchestra’s stranglehold; the shimmering horn solo that ushers in the development seemed to belong to a different time and place. This took us, inexorably, to another magic celesta moment before the march returned. Zander’s slow pace clarified Shostakovich’s reason for putting the final metronome mark in quavers: he wanted us to hear every individual eighth note, right down to the coda, where, under timpani bashing in fourths (Shostakovich must have had the Mahler Third in mind), one note, an A, is repeated 252 times. In Zander’s final pages, this was the note of the people, the protest of the people, the resistance of the people, their ownership of the music.

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.

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