Saturday, April 11, 2015

Symphony Review: Sunshine and shadow with Mozart and Shostakovich

Hannu Lintu
Share on Google+:

Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu
What: Music of Mozart and Shostakovich
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: April 10 and 11, 2015

[Find out more about the music with the SLSO program notes and my symphony preview.]

There was something vaguely disconcerting about leaving Powell Hall Friday morning after hearing the SLSO and guest conductor Hannu Lintu perform Shostakovich's harrowing 1943 "Symphony No. 8" in C minor. Walking out into that bright spring morning was a bit like suddenly waking up from a nightmare. For just a moment, the light seemed a little dimmer.

The eighth symphony is the kind of thing that prompted British critic Robert Layton to somewhat dismissively label Shostakovich a "documentary composer, far more bound up with this time" than some of his contemporaries. He wasn't entirely wrong. Certainly understanding the twin horrors of Hitler and Stalin that lie behind the scarred face of this work can enhance one's appreciation of it. In Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov's 1979 "Testimony," allegedly based on Shostakovich's memoirs, the composer is quoted as saying: "I feel eternal pain for those who were killed by Hitler, but I feel no less pain for those killed on Stalin's orders... That is what my symphonies are about, including Number Eight." But I think the Shostakovich Eighth is no more inextricably bound up with World War II than the Beethoven "Eroica" is with the Napoleonic wars.

Jonathan Chu
In any case, Mr. Lintu and the orchestra gave us an awfully good account of the music Friday morning. This was a beautifully and precisely calibrated performance that honored the composer's every intention. Mr. Lintu is, as I have noted before, a commanding and visually compelling figure on the podium. His big gestures are striking, but he can also coax delicate sounds with a minimum of physical display. He displays, in short, a nearly ideal mixture of romantic intensity and intellectual control—a winning combination for a work as complex as this one.

The gradually building tension of the long first movement was handled just right, so that the shattering climax and violent, mechanistic parody of a march that come about halfway through had maximum impact. The Allegretto second movement, which combines a march with a slightly demented dance, had a nice sarcastic edge.

The Allegro Non Troppo third movement is essentially "perpetual motion" music from Hell driven by what Mark Wigglesworth calls a "machine-like ostinato." It came across as appropriately driven without sounding frantic. The trumpets and trombones executed the weird little "oom-pah" dance interlude towards the end with impressive precision.

Strong dynamic contrasts underscored the despair of the fourth movement passacaglia, and the fifth movement's slow journey towards the light was beautifully paced. The final, luminous measures on flutes and strings were breathtakingly lovely. Mr. Lintu gave it a good ten count before lowering his baton at the end, so we could all appreciate the silence.

Beth Guterman Chu
Although scored for a massive orchestra (around ninety players), the Shostakovich Eighth is filled with solo and small ensemble passages that put all of the principal players in the spotlight at some point. Mr. Lintu gave them all a chance to stand at the end and they all deserved it. I was especially impressed by the horns this time around—Shostakovich often drives them up to the top of their register—but the truth is everyone played flawlessly.

The concert opened with the "Sinfonia concertante" in E-flat major for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra, K. 364, by Mozart—music so different it might as well be from another planet. Conducting without a baton and gracefully sculpting phrases from the air, Mr. Lintu gave us another finely tuned and classically balanced reading.

The soloists—both members of the SLSO string section—were the wife and husband team of Beth Guterman Chu on viola and Jonathan Chu on violin. As you might expect, their playing had the special kind of warmth and camaraderie that come from musicians who know each other well and anticipate each other's moves. They seemed to be having a wonderful time, which meant that we in the audience did as well.

Next at Powell Hall: Vasily Petrenko conducts Scriabin's "Symphony No. 3" and Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3" and with soloist Simon Trpceski on Friday and Saturday, April 17 and 18, at 8 p.m. For more information:

No comments: