Friday evening in the Koussevitzky Shed at Tanglewood, BSO Assistant Conductor Anna Rakitina presented a massive, fascinating, thrilling and profound program juxtaposing Shostakovich at two very different moments of his career with Dvořák’s magnificent Violin Concerto and Borodin’s fierce Polovtsian Dances.
An artfully chosen Prelude chamber music concert in Ozawa Hall prepared us for the main event in the Shed with contrasting quartets by Shostakovich and Borodin. Familiar BSO faces, namely violinists Valeria Vilker Kuchment and Glen Cherry, violist Mary Ferrilo, and cellist Adam Esbensen, gave a passionate intensity to Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110, composed in 1960 and described by a close friend as “a suicide note.” Alternating tenderness in the opening Largo movement with chilling terror in the ensuing Allegro molto, they brought the two experiences together in the finale to convey the tragedy of human life ravaged by a murderous, psychopathic regime based on the cult of a dictator. In contrast, they exploited the innocence of an earlier age by emphasizing the enchanting orientalism of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 in D Major, which Borodin had dedicated to his wife on their 25th wedding anniversary in 1881. I was particularly struck by how Esbensen’s cello gave a deeply earthy grounding to the first movement, and how Vilker Kutchment and Cherry brought out a Mendelssohnian whimsy in the Scherzo. The famous Notturno, in turn, achieved remarkable freshness from Ferillo’s subtly intuitive viola. The delights of Borodin could not quite dispel the anguish of the Shostakovich, leaving us with a haunting question: what went wrong? How did an emerging pastoral Arcadia full of joyous leaping and personal sentiment turn into the darkest hell?
Spry, tightly wired and in utter control of her means, Anna Rakitina opened the Shed event with a beautifully bittersweet rendition of Shostakovich Waltz No. 2 from his Suite for Variety Orchestra (1956), getting all of the right complexity in all of the right places. In particular, she emphasized the sweeping, unstoppable and Fellini-esque motion forward of human folly and exploited the color of Stephen Lange’s mournful but lyrical trombone to the hilt.
Gil Shaham joined Anna Rakitina in a superb rendering of the Dvořák Violin Concerto in A Minor. The two worked closely together to bring about a new and insightful reading, which transpired from the soloist’s first entrance. Rakitina gave alarming turbulence to the dramatic opening chords, enabling Shaham’s violin to respond by pushing back on the orchestra’s angst with a heartfelt plea to accommodate his voice. Shaham responded aria-like to the orchestra’s questioning and rose to completing the ensemble’s sentences, empowering them to recover momentum and inner resilience. Rakitina and Shaham nicely lingered on the bridge leading from the first movement allegro to the second movement adagio, giving it a probing, searching, even at times prophetic content, prompting an empathic response. As a result, the beautiful shift to F major that heralds the pastoral tranquility of the adagio arrived as a marvelous relief, soon to be imbued with rejoicing and the quasi-sacred benediction of horns before stretching out to an open-ended serenity.
Having convinced the larger forces of his artistic vision, Shaham’s violin now led them in a spirited furiant dance aimed at projecting his interpretation outward in a folkloric idiom. Shaham interrogated the orchestra playfully, suggesting new directions, to which the players responded with acclaim and delight and thorough assimilation; the orchestra then re-took the lead in effective advocacy. The emphatic timpani statement by Timothy Genis of the rondo theme marked the turning point. Perhaps not quite aware of the complexity of the dialogue through which we had been led, the audience rose subliminally confident that individual artists and the common good mutually benefit each other.
Hope and idealism, though, can be hijacked by psychopathic narcissists whose craving for power and ruthless disdain of others lead to tragedy. Even in works of a relatively young Shostakovich, coming at a relatively early stage of Stalin’s barbarity, meanings and interpretations can be ambiguous. The Symphony No. 3, “The First of May,” ostensibly glorifies the Soviet regime under Stalin, but, as Rakitina made sure to show us, the piece expresses Shostakovich’s ambivalence towards a dictatorship that was already marching Kulaks to their deaths.
How did she do it? Emphasizing the soulful, yearning and idealistic voice of the clarinet (William Hudgins gave it a sort of “soul awakening” feel) in the opening Allegretto, then interrupting it as the single-movement work unfolds with jarring, brutal scatological trumpets and timpani, Rakitina implied that the aspirations of the people for a better life of brotherhood and peace can be usurped by a regime wielding terror. In the third segment, a mock-heroic bombast, dripping with sarcasm, revealed the abject ruthlessness of totalitarian force, stomping away any remaining bright slivers of artistic conscience. In submitting the piece as his graduation work, Shostakovich said it celebrated “peaceful reconstruction.” Rakitina told us otherwise. She emphasized the strident destructiveness that lurked beneath the quasi-liturgical flavor of the choral finale. The words, flashed in translation on a prompter, spoke of setting forest on fire.
Did Rakitina program Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances to follow Shostakovich’s “May Day” symphony simply because the Tanglewood Festival Chorus would already be on stage? Or did she mean for us to draw a connection between Shostakovich’s subtext of dread and Borodin’s forceful unmasking of totalitarian idolatry? As in Shostakovich’s “May Day” symphony, Borodin’s Dances contrast the haunting yearning for freedom of captives with the abject worship of the “glorious” Khan who has reduced them to slaves, forcing them to fake contentment and to dance for his repellant personal entertainment. Did Shostakovich surreptitiously allude to Borodin’s heathen enemies of the Rus (the Polovetsians) to warn his compatriots that the “Slavic soul” must stand up for peace (Tolstoy) rather than militaristic and homicidal totalitarianism?
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.