Music for Troubled Times

By Thomas May

The Seattle Symphony just offered a rare chance to hear all six of Dmitri Shostakovich’s solo instrumental concertos back-to-back in a two-day marathon (January 19–20) featuring three young virtuosos, all led by the ensemble’s associate conductor, Pablo Rus Broseta.

Shostakovich has become Exhibit A in the discussion of music’s moral role during times of extreme duress. After all, the composer endured a regime in which making music was unexaggeratedly a matter of life or death. To create in a style deemed by Stalin’s thought police to be “elitist” and alien to the masses meant to risk the gulag (or even worse).

At the same time, music was a necessary outlet to combat the dictatorship’s soul murder, its Orwellian proclamations that what is false is true. Compositions could convey subversive encouragements, much as novelists and poets could use such mechanisms as allegory to protest.

These were some of the thoughts unleashed by Seattle Symphony’s festival—along with the usual ones of purely musical values, of virtuosity and expressivity, formal ingenuity and timbral innovation. And the political questions, appropriately for this contradictory composer, steered clear of suggesting straightforward answers.

Whatever smacks of sloganism in Shostakovich—including the slogan “fight the power” (as in the reading of the Fifth Symphony’s violently “jubilant” conclusion as an ironic declaration—“you must rejoice!”)—is almost guaranteed to conceal a bitter twist. The same holds for reducing his music merely to the expressions of a dissident (an image comparable to that of the starving but noble artist beloved of Bohemians).

The six concertos span Shostakovich’s own transformation from a brash, audacious upstart to a prematurely aged, weakened, haunted man more than three decades later. Each evening presented one each of the concertos for piano, violin, and cello.

The festival launched with the first, written for Shostakovich’s own instrument. The Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35, from 1933—a few years before Shostakovich’s notorious denunciation by the official Soviet newspaper for composing in a “decadent” style injurious to the people (despite the sensational success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District). Already here the young composer was champing at the bit to redefine the notion of a solo concerto, transmogrifying what started as a concerto for trumpet into a piano concerto that happens to include a major part for solo trumpet as well.

At 21, the soloist, Canadian-born Kevin Ahfat, was even younger than the 27-year-old Shostakovich was when he premiered his First Piano Concerto. In Ahfat’s interpretation, the First Piano Concerto at times resembled an action painting, its virtuoso demands and even surreal gestures swirling with aggressive energy. Ahfat’s extroverted style was well matched by SSO principal trumpet David Gordon—above all in the fierce battle of wills of the finale.

On the following night, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102, emphasized a more perky neoclassical bent with a peculiar admixture of humor. Written for the composer’s son Maxim in 1957 and of similar dimensions to the First Concerto (though with full orchestra rather than just a string ensemble), it was by far the most playful of the six concertos, lacking the aggressive edginess of its predecessor but offering an alluring backward glance at a romanticized slow movement a la Chopin. Here Ahfat took advantage of the opportunity to show a tenderer side to his keyboard personality with beautifully weighted legato—though, in the context of the piece overall, the question remains as to how sincere Shostakovich is. Can this music really be free of parody?

The other two soloists were string players, representing Shostakovich’s works for the great personalities on their respective instruments with whom he developed profound friendships (cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and violinist David Oistrakh). The Paris-born cellist Edgar Moreau, who won first prize in the 2014 Young Concert Artists International Audition and is a European Concert Hall Rising Star, is currently working with Frans Helmerson at the Kronberg Academy. He gave deeply affecting performances of the two cello concertos, braving the daunting shadow cast by Rostropovich, their champion and dedicatee.

Shostakovich Festival

Edgar Moreau; Photo by Brandon Patoc

The Russian cello legend famously learned the Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107,  within a mere four days for its 1959 premiere. Moreau’s performance was riveting throughout. He captured the nervous sense of paranoia that courses through the first movements, its argument permeated by ceaseless iterations and transformations of the deceptively simple four-note motif the cello announces at the start. His cantabile and sensitively phrased harmonics in the Moderato provided an oasis of taut contemplation that heightened into the lengthy cadenza Shostakovich develops as a separate movement of its own. Moreau carried across the composer’s notion of a cadenza not just as virtuoso display, but as moral monologue—the “words” too dangerous to be said.

What we heard was a rapt, existential soliloquy, its plucked chords urging the soloist to pursue his thoughts in new directions—only to confront unexpected gateblocks. The frenzy in the final movement intensified the sense of confrontation and struggle that Shostakovich adapted from the Romantic concerto and updated to a more perilous era. Kudos to horn player Jeff Fair, whose prominent role nearly amounts to the co-soloist status of the trumpet in the First Piano Concerto.

The Cello Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 126 (1966), is one of Shostakovich’s most enigmatic scores, a quasi-symphony written between the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Symphonies, featuring little extroverted display for the soloist. Moreau, playing his David Tecchler cello from 1711, seemed to survey the landscape ahead as he traced the wide-ranging span of his opening statement. Even in seemingly relaxed moments—the playful glissandi of the Scherzo—the impression was never innocent, never untethered from the menace that lurks beyond. The finale’s Mahlerian climax dissipated like a fever dream, and the brooding, haunted character of the first movement returned, dissolving the music and leaving Moreau in a state of isolation by the end, accompanied only by ticking percussion—one of the most chilling conclusions in Shostakovich.

I found myself particularly drawn to the artistry of 28-year-old Ukrainian violinist Aleksey Semenenko, who plays a Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi violin. Winner of the 2012 Young Concert Artists International Auditions and second prize winner at the 2015 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium, Semenenko also plays in the Stolyarsky Quartet (which he founded).

The two violin concertos were presented in reverse order, with No. 2 in C-sharp minor, Op. 129, on the first concert and No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77, at the conclusion of the festival. If the piano concertos (especially the first) jab at Romanticism with the spear of parody, the Second Violin Concerto embeds a quietly desperate longing for heartfelt communication that at times finds itself stifled and deflected by the orchestra’s interpolations. Semenenko’s playing encompassed the needed extremes of rich, lush tone and austerity, evaporating at points to a vibrato-less, above-the-battle ghost. With Rus Broseta’s sure guidance of the orchestra, the violinist played with deep sensitivity and chamber-like focus in his intimate exchanges with solo winds.

Shostakovich Festival

Aleksey Semenenko; Photo by Brandon Patoc

To this taste the highlight of the entire festival arrived with the epic First Violin Concerto, written during one of Shostakovich’s crisis periods with the authorities (the postwar denunciations of 1948) and thus suppressed until he felt safe enough to unveil it in public in 1955, after Stalin’s death. A few slight waverings in intonation aside, this was a genuinely masterful performance. Semenenko’s powers of concentration pulled the audience in from his opening, spun-out solo in the first-movement nocturne. Much as Shostakovich cannot be reduced to an either/or figure (follower of the Party line/secret dissident), it does an injustice to his music to pigeonhole the tone of, say, the Scherzo as “sarcastic” music. Semenenko emphasized its kaleidoscopic animation and frenzy.

The weighty Passacaglia ranks among the most moving music Shostakovich ever wrote—here, ironically, constricting himself to the presets of an ancient, prescribed form. Like the First Cello Concerto, in culminates in a massive, powerful cadenza that is the violinist’s equivalent of a Shakespearean monologue—so it was in Semenenko’s performance, all the more effective with his careful, self-aware pacing of events that build to the Burlesca finale.

The festival overall was an extraordinary testament to the expressive gifts of these young virtuosos (their technical ones being taken as a given)—but also of the personality helming all six concertos, the Spanish conductor Pablo Rus Broseta. A protégé of the late Pierre Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy, Rus Broseta noted in the program that Boulez had made no secret of his disdain for the Russian composer. Yet across the span of these two evenings, Rus Broseta’s advocacy was focused and often passionate.

What was perhaps Boulezian was the expert attention he brought to shaping Shostakovich’s sound world—to his blends of the solo instrument in each case with winds, as for example the beautiful dovetailing in and out of the foreground by principal bassoonist Seth Krimsky shortly after the opening of the First Violin Concerto. Also of note was Rus Broseta’s flair for theatricality, shaping climaxes and, even more, bringing out the implications of ensuing anti-climaxes.

Across all their ambiguities and contradictions, whether despairing or indulging in a momentary illusion of peace from the fray, we were never left in doubt that Shostakovich was writing music that mattered.

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