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Gloom, Doom, and Despair: Slatkin Leads the NSO in Glorious DSCH-11

While the number thirty-two might suggest a fairly mature work for Mozart's G major symphony, it is a product of the—relatively speaking—young, twenty-three-year-old composer, then still in Salzburg. There had been larger symphonies among the 31+ predecessors, but the substantial, magnificent ones were yet to come. Still, in loveliness, this utility sinfonietta is not surpassed by many. Its refreshing brevity of ten shy minutes made it a convenient apéritif for the Britten Violin Concerto to follow. Last night, the National Symphony Orchestra, under Leonard Slatkin, did full justice to the gaiety and light step of the work.

available at AmazonBritten, Walton, Viola Concertos,
Vengeroff / Rostropovich / LSO

No music-loving soul could possibly hold it against Benjamin Britten that he thought composing music was a more worthwhile way to fight continental totalitarianism than handling a 4Mk1 Enfield. The Violin Concerto is one of the children of his three-year exile, composed when the composer was twenty-five.

Slatkin did well to let soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann "fight for himself" in the concerto, playing the orchestra with all the energy and heft that the more martial passages demand, rather than succumbing to the otherwise introverted and reflective nature of Britten's op. 15. Hearing it within a few weeks of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 (with Gidon Kremer at Strathmore, reviewed on Ionarts) makes a particularly vivid point about the similarities between the concertos and, indeed, between the composers in some of their œuvre. (Richard Freed's program notes pointed to the Passacaglia as one of the most important and obvious touching points.)

Zimmermann is one of the finest of his generation of violinists, an intellectual of his instrument, not unlike his German compatriot Christian Tetzlaff. He may not have the variety of tones and nuance of a Vadim Repin or the raw, virtuosic energy of a Maxim Vengeroff, but his clarity and the well-thought-out structure of his dark-hued and—needless to say—impeccable playing can only be awed at. The devilishly difficult (but not particularly showy) passages in the Vivace with extensive left-hand pizzicati thrown into the bow's melody seemed like a walk in the park for him.

For all the differences between Slatkin and the players, what cannot be denied is the huge improvement that this orchestral body has made under him. And it shows in almost every concert he conducts in this, his second-to-last season with the NSO. Committed and alternatingly lyrical and brooding, the Britten Violin Concerto spoke to that effect. The work is also one of those for which a case can be made better in concert than recording. (On record, the aforementioned Mr. Vengeroff recently recorded a fine version under Rostropovich, coupled with the Viola Concerto of Walton.) That point was proven on the spot, when the audience burst into several salvos of bravos upon the reappearance of the magnificent Frank Peter Zimmermann. New converts to Britten and the particular concerto had been made.

I have been on a Shostakovich trip for some time now, rediscovering many of the symphonies that had hitherto eluded me. The 11th is one of them. All the better then to hear it live as part of this excellent (and rather daring, for Washington) program with its links from violist Mozart to violist Britten to his contemporary Shostakovich. The 11th Symphony, in G minor, too, is a work that can unfold to its true stature only in the concert hall; only afterwards can a recording be appreciated, in light of the sonic limitations to which lo- and mid-fi stereo equipment (or our neighbors) restrict us. Depending on which point of view you take in the DSCH assessment—Volkoff vs. Fay, if you wish—it is tempting to think of the 11th Symphony ("The Year of 1905") as "The Year of 1956," the year of the Hungarian uprising and consequent bloody squashing by the Red Army. From its timpani-punctuated gloomy, soft rise to the bell-ringing, massive finale it's a work that can be interpreted any which way it pleases you. But just knowing the string quartets of Shostakovich is enough to lead me to the "indictment in celebration's cloth" point of view.

available at AmazonD. Shostakovich, Symphony #11,
Stokowski / Houston SO

The symphony opens almost laconically, with Shostakovich's typically eternal run-up, until it finally arrives at the irresistible momentum that makes many of his orchestral giants such ruthless onslaughts. He takes his good time with it, as so often, but part of experiencing Shostakovich is not about the particular moment but about how you got there, where you've been before you arrive at any one moment, and about how you feel when you finally get there. A dead tree in the snow will look different if you have passed it three times before, walking in circles. (A link could be drawn to the work of Philip Glass, another composer where "the moment" means significantly less than the impact of the whole and the previous.)

Slatkin treaded carefully in the first movement, conjuring faintly the grim things in store for us. The onslaught comes, sure enough, in the second movement "The 9th of January," creeping in after the seamless connection to the first movement ("The Palace Square"). Just like Mahler in his works, DSCH celebrates many faux-climaxes from here on. The driving, propulsive undercurrent turns his often initially slow-moving works into musical juggernauts, something the 11th has very much in common with the 4th Symphony (CD reviews here and here). Slatkin knew how to push the NSO to show its teeth while the audience gritted theirs through the fierce, decibel-heavy attacks. But Shostakovich doesn't need decibels to be fierce; even the consequent soft passages offer no respite. They merely carry their knife in the pocket, ready to spring open at a moment's notice.

And so the symphony went on, with bloodshot eyes, biting a live bat's head off, until the listener is driven all the way back into his or her seat, pumping their fist to a crazed look and total concentration. (Well, at least this listener.) The second movement's celesta-harp-string moment of solemnity, after a climax that makes the finale of the 5th Symphony look tame, is like an otherworldly dreamscape, like realizing an evil without being able to grasp it. The false, empty triumph and gargantualism of the finale ("Tocsin") is an experience to behold and certainly was with the NSO. It was a rousing affair, moving, positively exasperating, and alone would make for a concert not to be missed. With Zimmermann's Britten and the delicious Mozart appetizer, however, it's a must-hear. Repeat performances will take place today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8 pm

Tim Page quite liked the concert himself, as he relates to us in the Washington Post.