Shostakovich continues to rile, stir

Music Review

October 07, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

Dmitri Shostakovich stirred up emotions and controversy throughout much of his life. His music still does, three decades after his death.

Just this week a story surfaced in the media about protests against him in Russia. Back in the day, it was the Soviet regime, of course, that took occasional umbrage at what the composer was writing. This time, it was the Russian Orthodox Church, which effectively cowed presenters into severely censoring a work based on a Pushkin tale now deemed offensive to the clergy.

Imagine - Shostakovich being banned again, 70 years after Stalin and his goons denounced him for his searing opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Talk about the continuing relevance of music.

What a perfect week, then, to hear Shostakovich's stunning Symphony No. 10, inflected as it is with his own musical signature (notes that, in their equivalent German notation, spell initials of his name), and filled as it is with suggestions of a titanic struggle between art and evil.

Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the impact of the work could be keenly felt as Yuri Temirkanov, one of the few conductors left with Shostakovich imbedded in his DNA, led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a riveting performance.

Whether the figure of Stalin looms over the score - the aggressive scherzo, specifically, is supposedly a portrait of the dictator - can be debated, since the primary source of that description comes from Testimony, the disputed memoirs of the composer as told to Solomon Volkov.

But it sure sounds that way in a powerful performance, and this performance was nothing if not powerful.

Temirkanov tapped into the profound unease of the opening movement, the sense of both mass and individual suffering. He tore into the scherzo with a vengeance. The third movement, haunted by the Shostakovich motto and a plaintive horn call, which could have been written by Mahler, unfolded with exceptional expressive depth.

The finale of the Tenth suggests a dancing-on-the-grave release of stifled emotion, but with the occasional wary look over the shoulder. It is not so much triumphant as bravely defiant. And, certainly on this occasion, cathartic.

Maybe the BSO could have been a little tighter in a few spots, but hardly more intense. Among several sterling solo contributions, those by Philip Munds (horn) and Emily Skala (flute) stood out for extra communicative richness.

Throughout this edge-of-the-seat journey into the Tenth Symphony, you couldn't miss how these musicians and this conductor (now their music director emeritus) enjoy a rapport that seems almost spiritual. You just don't encounter that sort of connectivity every day.

The rest of the program, the second of two commemorating the Shostakovich centennial, offered the composer in a more relaxed, even impish mode.

The Piano Concerto No. 2, with its two out-of-the-shoot rambunctious movements surrounding a sea of exquisite lyricism, proved a perfect vehicle for Yefim Bronfman. He had tone to spare, delivering great wallops of sound as needed; he negotiated whirly bits with insouciance; he sculpted the long, lovely melody of the Andante with a poet's touch.

Temirkanov provided his usual attentive partnering and drew colorful playing from the BSO. (The concerto won't be repeated at this morning's Casual Concert.)

To start, there was Tahiti Trot, Shostakovich's tongue-in-cheek, smile-inducing arrangement of "Tea for Two." Neither church nor state could ever object to this.

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