Shostakovich at 90: A Paean to Stanisław Skrowaczewski

GermanyGermany Bruckner, Chopin, Shostakovich: Alexei Volodin (piano), Stanisław Skrowaczewski (conductor), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Gasteig Philharmonic Hall, Munich, 11.5.2012 (JFL)

Bruckner-Skrowaczewski : Adagio from String Quintet arr. for String Orchestra
Chopin: Piano Concerto No.2
Shostakovich: Symphony No.5

When it rains, it pours. Raining Shostakovich in this case, not the most regularly performed composer in Munich, and now the fifth Symphony in as many days! And incidentally the Fifth Symphony this time – part of the regular Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra season with veteran conductor Polish Stanisław Skrowaczewski on the rostrum.

Stanisław Skrowaczewski is one of those fascinating cases of great, acknowledged, prize-winning, Pulitzer-nominated achievement that yet manages to remain underestimated. The one-time Nadia Boulanger student has worked with the perfectly underestimatable Hallé and Minnesota orchestras. He has recorded superb, but of course underestimated Shostakovich Symphonies (1 & 6, 5 & 10) with the former. And his is by far the best underrated Bruckner Symphony Cycle (with the Saarbrücken RSO on Oehms. Quote Skrowaczewski: “For me, Bruckner is one of the greatest composers, even though I cannot exactly say why.” A man after my own heart!)

The concert with the BRSO played to his strengths with every of its three ingredients: Bruckner, Shostakovich, and a Chopin piano concerto. (He has recorded both concertos with Alexis Weissenberg, Ewa Kupicek, and the First famously with Artur Rubinstein). Only his own compositional activity wasn’t on display, as it had been in his last outing with the BRSO.

A Paean to Skrowaczewski

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D.Schostakovich, Sy. 5 & 10,
S.Skrowaczewski / Hallé Orchestra
Hallé Live

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F.Chopin, Piano Concertos
A.Weissenberg / S.Skrowaczewski / O.d.l Société des Concerts du Conservatoire

At 89 years, Skrowaczewski no longer smoothly strides to the podium, but on the podium itself, his beat is clearer and his arms more limber than those of colleagues half his age. On this, the second of two performances, he conducted as amazing and moving a Shostakovich 5th Symphony as I have heard. Holy Mackerel, this thing was good! The first was movement on the slow side, but not lumbering, nor hysterically driven. Instead it had a keen determination to it and a calm sense of purpose, not foreboding. Before you even knew it, he had achieved magnificent tension right before the lateral outbreak of the militaristic march that marks the beginning of the wild, protracted, ultimately quiet cumulation of the first movement. It was the opening broadside to a giddy musical victory.

Only the liner notes were disappointing that night: The typical, tired Ian MacDonald and Solomon Volkov references, going so far as referring to the latter’s fraudulent, semi-fictional account of the composer’s life as “Shostakovich Memoirs”. It’s almost as if the composer still needed, in 2012, political justification for being enjoyed in concert. None of this does justice to the very real ambivalence of Shostakovich’s position, nor the permanence of his situation. The Largo, granted, is full of earnest darkness and tender desolation, but even that moves more from darkness to light than the other way around. The tenacious tone on which it ends leads right into the finale. A finale, incidentally, that Skrowaczewski took at a tempo that would have commanded respect of the devil (especially if the devil sat in the BRSO string section). But Skrowaczewski wasn’t out for cheap, effective fireworks. During the string ostinato he eventually, very slowly took the tempo back rather than accelerating it further for gimmick’s sake. The result was gruesomely awesome, solely on musical grounds.

Muscular Detachment

In the Chopin Concerto No.2 in f-minor, soloist Alexei Volodin’s muscular and clear tone and the finely separated notes made the ears perk. There was never a haze, nor a wallowing romantic affectation, no matter whether he played forcefully or softly. Aided by a particularly good seat in the Philharmonic Hall, within immediate firing range of the Hamburg Steinway, every note was audible in detail and yet as if encapsulated by an enchanting distance. The balance and expressive shifts of his hands were an added enjoyable element of his curiously un-hackneyed performance… These qualities were corroborated by the encored Waltz No.7 in c-sharp minor.

Straight from Paradise

The Adagio from Bruckner’s String Quintet in F (WAB 112) in Skrowaczewski’s arrangement for string orchestra was of instant touching beauty, played with such perfection and tenderness that any doubt about such chamber-work enlargements w banished after three notes… even as Bruckner’s original is – amid paradisiacal moments (Max Kalbeck)– not without weaker moments. Over the lengthy course of the work some of those doubts crept back in (could either Skrowaczewski or Bruckner not have cut a few bars or maybe channeled the broad flow a slightly narrower bed somewhere half way through?), but still, beauty prevailed.

Jens F. Laurson

For two more days the concert can be streamed “on demand” – available at