BSO touches lingering truth of `Babi Yar'

Review: Temirkanov unleashes power of Shostakovich's provocative symphony.

June 23, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There may come a day when the profoundly disturbing issues raised by the "Babi Yar" Symphony of Shostakovich will seem entirely alien to us. But that day is not likely to be soon.

Let's see. There's the horror of the Holocaust and latent anti-Semitism, confronted in the first movement. Just this week, a major literary prize in Germany was awarded to an author who espouses the view that Hitler's response to the Jews was reasonable. And nationalism, inevitably tinged with anti-Semitic undercurrents, keeps rising to the fore in many of the countries once caught up in World War II.

Then there's the second movement's salute to the durability of humor, despite efforts by those in authority to stamp it out. Easy to think of places where that's still relevant. And although Russian women may no longer endure the long breadlines, a sight so chillingly evoked by the symphony's third movement, somewhere, every day such lines are formed. And maybe Russians don't fear the knock at the door in the dead of night, as the fourth movement recalls, but somewhere, every day such fear is felt.

And what of the finale's sardonic description of a careerist who knows what he espouses is wrong, but will not jeopardize his security by saying so? Just look around.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra unleashed the provocative power of "Babi Yar" in an extraordinary performance last evening at Meyerhoff Hall. Lighting the fuse was music director Yuri Temirkanov, whose deep understanding of the score and its implications could be felt at every turn of phrase. From the stark opening of the "Babi Yar" movement to the delicate closing measures of the finale, the conductor ensured that no detail of vocal or instrumental writing was taken for granted.

The result was a gripping, illuminating performance that found the BSO in sterling form, the strings dark-hued and richly expressive, the woodwinds prismatic, the brass sturdy (if the tuba solo could have been a little more secure, it conveyed the bleak message of the "Fears" movement tellingly), the percussion superbly responsive.

Soloist Sergei Alekashkin seemed to be suffering from a cold; the bass could not always get his voice to cooperate fully. But his singing was so alert to poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko's texts that any technical unevenness did not matter at all. Alekashkin touched the truth of each poem as vividly, in his own way, as Yevtushenko himself did in some recitations before the symphony was played. (Yevtushenko's hammy streak was much in evidence during those readings, but his passion was irresistible. And he added an extra dimension to the Shostakovich experience by offering a poem that is not part of the symphony, about the desire to be happy and free, but not at the expense of the unhappy and the unfree.)

Adding strongly to the performance was the polished, dynamic singing by the men of the Baltimore Symphony Chorus and the Slavic Male Chorus of Washington, D.C. (A complete translation of the poetry was available as a handout and was much preferable to the sometimes curiously abridged version projected, like opera surtitles, above the stage.)

The program opened with an elegantly executed account of Haydn's Symphony No. 104 ("London"). Temirkanov treated it more like Brahms, using a full complement of strings, which buried some of the inner details, and favoring moderate tempos. It was as if the past few decades of historically informed approaches to 18th century music had completely passed him by. Yet the overall integrity of the conductor's view, enforced by some Bernstein-like touches of dramatic phrasing at the start and deliciously bass-heavy chords at the end, gave the work a rich dignity that seemed all the more fitting considering what would come afterward.

`Babi Yar' at the BSO

What: Symphony No. 13 by Shostakovich

When: 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday

Where: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $22 to $57

Call: 410-783-8000

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