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NSO's Russian Tribute to Rostropovich

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Schnittke, Viola Concerto, D. A. Carpenter, Philharmonia Orchestra, C. Eschenbach
(Ondine, 2009)

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Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5, Philadelphia Orchestra, C. Eschenbach
(Ondine, 2008)
Christoph Eschenbach is taking the National Symphony Orchestra to Carnegie Hall next weekend, with a program of Russian music in tribute to the ensemble's venerated former music director, Mstislav Rostropovich. The NSO gave a run-through of the program, featuring three composers championed by Rostropovich -- Shchedrin, Schnittke, and Shostakovich -- on Friday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, in between concerts featuring cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

Eschenbach opened with Slava, Slava, a sort of overture composed by Rodion Shchedrin for Rostropovich's 70th birthday in 1997. The piece was premiered in Paris, but this performance by the NSO, its first, was also the U.S. premiere. (We are all thankful that Eschenbach stayed away from the terrible Slava! overture by Leonard Bernstein, a piece I never want to hear again.) Shchedrin's memorable and often strange piece, subtitled "A Festive Ringing of Bells," opens with many strikes of a cluster of three bells struck simultaneously (the score calls for Russian bells, here played on great chimes). A regular rhythmic pulse, propelled by raucous double bass pizzicati and other means, gives the feel of a solemn march, fueled further by an enormous battery of percussion. It ends in a crazy cacophony of metallic wallops, on bell plates, tubular bells, crotales, and more. It was an impressive clatter of sound.

Rostropovich himself was the last to conduct Alfred Schnittke's viola concerto with the NSO, back in 1992. Eschenbach recorded the work a few years ago with David Allen Aaron Carpenter, the same soloist featured on Friday night. Schnittke removed most treble distractions by leaving the violins out of the score, with the viola solo featured at the start against a drone in the solo cello. Carpenter emphasized the ardent soaring lines and deep-throated barks of the composer's enigmatic writing for the viola, created for Yuri Bashmet, often seeming to prefer rawness of sound over absolute precision, reaching a pretty strident tone in the cadenza at the end of the second movement. Carpenter gave plenty of frenzy to the opening of the second movement, yielding to the faux-genteel waltz with muted brass and the somewhat smug addition of harpsichord (amplified, played by Joseph Gascho). The piece's many shifting colors seems well suited to Eschenbach, who reveled in drawing out episodic characters, like the bitonal chords (recalling the "Augurs" of the Rite of Spring), the squawking high woodwinds, the crazy lush serenade eventually heightened by the nutty sound of flexatone, the Shostakovich-like grotesque march. The piece is quite a head-scratcher, but one that never leaves the ear or mind bored.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO’s strengths, weaknesses, identity issues on display at Spring for Music (Washington Post, May 13)

---, Christoph Eschenbach, National Symphony Orchestra mix up the program (Washington Post, May 3)

Robert Battey, David Aaron Carpenter, NSO take on Schnittke Viola Concerto (Washington Post, May 6)
Rostropovich, because of his close friendship with Shostakovich, had a special insight into the composer's works, although his limits as a conductor often got in the way with the symphonies. Eschenbach has his own way with Shostakovich, which he showed in this performance of the fifth symphony, a work that is either a desperate attempt to get back into the graces of the Soviet government, after the condemnation of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, or an ironic commentary on blind obedience to authority. One can certainly play the work either way, and the latter interpretation conveniently sounded much better for the composer in the post-Stalin years. In a fine performance, Eschenbach drew out a somber but also tender beginning to the first movement, saving the biting tone until later, with limpid violin sound over lush chords, a silvery flute solo and juicy woodwinds -- at times one can almost hear Shostakovich purging his compositional idiom of its atonal, sarcastic urges. The NSO, with all sections in excellent form save some dicey moments in the horns and some harp tuning issues in the fourth movement, made a lumbering dance in the second movement, with a tempo just the right side of Allegretto, going slower and more lop-sided in the chamber-sized trio, with smile-inducing pizzicato bits and bassoon burps. The third movement was a searing elegy for strings, with an elegant serenade for flutes and harp and a plaintive oboe solo, echoes of the Tristan theme heard at times. The fourth movement was satisfying bombastic, music that could indeed be heard either as an optimistic sort of patriotism or as a critique of blind devotion to the state. Our business is rejoicing, indeed.

This program will be repeated next weekend, when the NSO performs it at Carnegie Hall in New York (May 11, 7:30 pm).

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