Saturday, April 16, 2011
From Russia, con fuoco
Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with Yefim Bronfman, piano
What: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: April 15 through 17, 2011
I’m not big on standing ovations as a rule, but this Friday found me on my feet at the end of both halves of the program – first for a lively Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with volcanic pianism from Yefim Bronfman and then for a powerful Shostakovich Symphony No. 10.
The Tchaikovsky is, of course, an enduring chestnut that always gets a warm response. The lively melodies (some appropriated from Ukrainian folk sources) and flashy piano part never fail to appeal. What distinguished this performance for me, though, was the way in which conductor David Robertson and pianist Yefim Bronfman brought out the dance elements that, while clearly present, are not always recognized in the concert hall. The famous first theme, in particular, sounded more like a waltz than usual. The strong rhythmic pulse carried right through the lilting second movement and into the third, winding up with a spectacular finale that was emphatically “con fuoco”.
Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, by contrast, isn’t easy to love. An often somber and deeply felt reflection on grim oppression of the Stalin years, the 10th is, even by Shostakovich standards, a work of extremes. Moments of crystalline delicacy alternate with vast outpourings of orchestral sound. Deceptively simple-sounding melodic material is spun out in increasingly complex ways, especially during the long and sometimes harrowing first movement. It’s a piece that demands and deserves the kind of intense concentration that audiences are not, sadly, always ready to grant in our current era of mass distraction.
Mr. Robertson and the orchestra were more than up to the challenges of this highly personal testament to the endurance of the human spirit. Although scored for a large orchestra, the 10th is nevertheless filled with long solo and small ensemble passages. The winds, in particular (especially the double reed contingent), are given many opportunities to shine, and on Friday night they unquestionably did. This is a symphony that requires the musicians to be not only skilled ensemble players but solid soloists as well. The members of the SLSO clearly meet both requirements with ease.
A great performance always makes me want to go back and listen to the work again. It’s a testimony to the quality of Friday’s reading of the 10th that I went back the next day to listen to my CD of the Leonard Slatkin/SLSO performance from 1987. The band sounded pretty terrific back then as well.
Next up on the symphony schedule are a pair of lesser-known works by well-known composers: Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto and Scriabin’s Second Symphony April 28 and 29, 2011. Ward Stare will conduct with Stephen Hough at the piano. For more information, you can call 314-534-1700, visit slso.org, or follow @slso on Twitter.