Schwarz’s Shostakovich Lives up to Expectations

United StatesUnited States Hagen, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich: Alexander Toradze (piano), Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 26.4.2012 (BJ)

Given the omens, this was never going to be anything but an outstanding concert. Gerard Schwarz stands among the two or three greatest exponents of Shostakovich’s music now before the public. And the Eighth Symphony has strong claims to being regarded as the composer’s greatest. Happily, the omens were richly fulfilled—though for a sadly underpopulated hall—on this recent Thursday evening.

No. 8 is one of the two works sometimes referred to as the composer’s “war symphonies.” No. 7 was written in the thick of World War II action, in the besieged city of Leningrad, by which name it is known. Understandably, it is a work that proclaims a somewhat literal message of conflict and nationalistic fervor. No. 8, by contrast, adopts a more philosophical, one might say “cosmic,” approach.

True, there are moments in it of veritably terrifying dynamic force, and two of its five movements can only be heard as portrayals of evil. But at its heart is a long, slow, soft passacaglia that evokes inward rather than outward turmoil, and the symphony’s ending, no facile assertion of triumph, suggests instead the chastening of soul that must come from experiencing, and even from winning, a fierce battle.

It was the sovereign virtue of Schwarz’s interpretation that the huge climaxes and the quiet, contemplative elements of the music were projected with equal emotional power, and the orchestra realized his vision with evidently total commitment. Principal trumpet David Gordon and principal horn Mark Robbins played their crucial solos superbly, and their sections responded with thrilling panache to some high-altitude writing. Impressive too were the woodwinds, notably Stefan Farkas on english horn and Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby on piccolo; the percussion; timpanist Michael Crusoe, who contributed many perfectly focused dramatic interventions; and the strings, where occasional but important antiphonal passages benefitted noticeably from Schwarz’s preferred left-right splitting of the two violin sections.

For the evening’s concerto, the omens were less clear. Alexander Toradze sometimes plays beautifully, but quite often reveals a weakness for mere banging, and his interpretative inclinations also incline to the excessive. This time, though, he offered a well-proportioned account of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, perhaps more effective at the upper and lower ends of the keyboard than in the middle, and the orchestral support featured some fine clarinet solos by Christopher Sereque.

The evening had begun with an assured world-premiere performance of Five Sky Interludes from American composer Daron Aric Hagen’s Amelia, which he wrote for the Seattle Opera, where Schwarz conducted its premiere two years ago. Akin to the Sea Interludes Britten drew from his Peter Grimes, this roughly 25-minute orchestral recycling should afford useful currency in the concert hall to music of broad expressive range and compelling inspiration.

Bernard Jacobson

This review appeared also in the Seattle Times.