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BSO and the Leningrad's Slow Burn

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Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Y. Temirkanov
(2010, Signum Classics)

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Ravel, Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (inter alia), L. Fleisher, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, S. Comissiona
(Vanguard Classics)
Not much about the last few years of Marin Alsop's tenure at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- nor her plans for next season -- has left me all that excited. So it is an extraordinary pleasure -- no one likes to spend so much time being negative -- to relay the most favorable impression of this week's program from Alsop and the BSO, heard last night in Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Now it is true that this concert opened with another example, far too frequent, of recapitulation in Alsop's programming. Ravel's Piano Concerto in D Major, for left-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, was last heard from the BSO only two years ago, with James Gaffigan conducting Christopher O'Riley at the keyboard.

The soloist this time, though, was local legend Leon Fleisher, now in his 80s, returning to a piece he had performed with so much authority in the phase of his career when he had lost most of the use of his right hand. Even Fleisher's charismatic presence -- cheers from the balcony greeted his entrance, evidence of some students in attendance (but not enough) -- could not fill this (all too often) partly empty hall. The somber opening of low brass and contrabassoon was played in all of its subtly vivid color, with Fleisher producing a poetic phrasing in his opening solo section, perhaps not as technically sure-handed as in his younger days but musically more formidable, and a smoky, jazz-inflected sheen to the second solo section, with more beautiful woodwind solos in the orchestra. In the grotesque march of the middle section -- a nice programming alternative to the same composer's Boléro, often said to be the inspiration for the march in the first movement of the other work on this concert, Shostakovich's seventh symphony -- the BSO lagged just slightly behind Fleisher's pace.

Dmitry Shostakovich began his seventh symphony in the month or so after learning that Germany had invaded the U.S.S.R., in June 1941, completing it later in the year after being evacuated from St. Petersburg. It was a sincerely patriotic period for Shostakovich, who volunteered for the army (he was not accepted) and worked with the citizen corps ready to put out fires on the roof of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, although scholar Laurel Fay notes that most of his colleagues devised reasons to keep Shostakovich from any real danger. Along with settings of Soviet songs, the seventh symphony was the best way for the composer to express his patriotic fervor: "I wrote the seventh symphony quickly," Fay records him saying. "I couldn't not write it. War was all around. I had to be together with the people, I wanted to create the image of our embattled country, to engrave it in music."

Remaining in the city after the German shelling had begun, Shostakovich played in benefit concerts and gave radio and newspaper interviews, and the story of the courageous young composer was instant gold for the Soviet regime. As Fay says of the seventh symphony, "it was a heady propaganda weapon, evoking both inspiration and defiance, and its publicity was exploited skillfully almost from the moment of the work's conception." He spent the worst part of the siege of Leningrad as a refugee in Moscow and farther east: he learned of the rampant hunger in the city, for example, from the news that his dog, like most animals in the city, had been eaten. Is the piece to be understood as a patriotic Soviet response to war, or are we to take at face value the composer's later positioning of the work as a condemnation of totalitarianism? Fay sees evidence of both interpretations in the composer's mind: he openly acknowledged at the time that the work was a response to the German invasion, but he also resisted suggestions that the finale could be strengthened by adding a chorus extolling the praise of Stalin.

Other Articles:

Tim Smith, Magnetic performances from Marin Alsop, Leon Fleisher, Baltimore Symphony (Baltimore Sun, May 4)
This was a courageous bit of programming on Alsop's part, since the last time the BSO performed the work was in 2001, under her predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov. This is not a comparison one would expect to be advantageous to Alsop, but she came up with gold for the daring, leading a performance that was a measured, earth-shattering slow burn. In pacing, it was not unlike Yuri Temirkanov's most recent recording, made live with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (not the one made with the same orchestra in the 1990s, for RCA), an account that is alternately blistering and indulgent of the work's occasionally bathetic cinematic spectacle. The playing was all fine: a halo of string sound, especially radiant in the violins, plus luscious violas in the elegiac slow movement; woodwind solos all fragile (flute and piccolo), lyrical (oboe), melancholy (bassoon), and appropriately shrill (E-flat clarinet); galvanized, square-on brass choir (eight horns, six trumpets, six trombones, and tuba!); with only that final layer of machine-like precision missing in the snare drum part, and only at times. Alsop conducted with confidence, the fast tempos not too fast and the slow movement not too slow, for an overall timing that came in a few minutes longer even than Temirkanov but that never dragged.

This program will be repeated in its entirety only on Sunday (May 6, 3 pm) at the Meyerhoff, with versions of the lecture-performance "Off the Cuff" concerts scheduled for Friday (May 4, 8:15 pm) at Strathmore and Saturday (May 5, 7 pm) at the Meyerhoff.

A few days after this concert, I learned that Leon Fleisher had attended his ex-wife's funeral service on Thursday afternoon, before proceeding to play this concert with the BSO that evening. Rikki Fleisher, who was divorced from Leon Fleisher in 1975, had died two days earlier of breast cancer.

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