CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 26 OCTOBER 2006
Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round. Johannes Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op. 77. Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47. (Frank Peter Zimmerman, v.; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
A classroom exercise: write a story using the following words and phrases: "imperialists," "capitalism," "opportunists," "enthusiasts," "shock workers," "new society." It was October 1932, and the assignment was recorded in the diary of the 14-year-old Moscow schoolgirl Nina Lugovskaya. Little wonder that, as students of the period have noted, it was far better to be a mediocrity in Stalinist Russia than a person of genuine talent. It was a time and a place in which ideological correctness defined the parameters of permissible creativity.
Given the historical context, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony is something close to miraculous—a masterpiece that satisfied both artistic and authoritarian imperatives. That it addresses the political tensions of its day appears certain; but its stance seems to shift depending on the angle from which it's viewed.
The Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst offered concertgoers an opportunity to reconsider Shostakovich's symphony at Thursday evening's Severance Hall concert. The performance was riveting: suspenseful, edgy, and sonically thrilling. You'd be hard pressed to find a better showpiece for the ensemble's range. From the ear-splitting, maniacal march toward the end of the first movement development to the ghostly conclusion of the Largo, this was orchestral playing at its finest. Welser-Möst's interpretation of the Allegretto was particularly striking: splendidly grotesque, luridly colored-music that perched at the edge of an emotional abyss.
It would have been surprising if the rest of the concert had met this impressively high standard. Unfortunately, the program's first half didn't even come close. Guest violin soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann has, to be sure, a winningly husky sound and some impressive technical skills, but he put those assets to better use in his unannounced encore—the Sarabande from Bach's Partita BWV 1004, unless I'm mistaken—than in the Brahms Violin Concerto. One could, perhaps, have forgiven Zimmermann's exaggerated dynamic changes and self-indulgent portamenti had his reading of the concerto not been so unrelievedly ponderous. To be sure, the demand for that encore indicates that I was very much in the minority, but I found this performance sluggish, spiritless, and largely stripped of drama.
Welser-Möst and the orchestra had somewhat better luck with the program opener—Osvaldo Golijov's Last Round—though the interpretation sounded unfinished, lacking rhythmic definition. Nonetheless, the piece is a moderately evocative one: Golijov's musical tribute to fellow Argentine Astor Piazzolla.
And the juxtaposition of Last Round and the Shostakovich Fifth is a grim reminder that Argentina, like Russia, has had more than its share of experiences with government-sanctioned brutality. Jacobo Timerman, a publisher arrested during Argentina's "Dirty War," recalls an exceptionally chilling detail in his prison memoir. The police, it seems, had a special terminology for identifying how forthcoming someone had been under torture. If the prisoner told them a lot, he was said to have sung an opera. If the interrogators learned little, he had sung only a tango.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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