“Coarse, Primitive and Vulgar?” Wigglesworth Shows Otherwise

United StatesUnited States Grieg, Shostakovich: Simon Trpčeski (piano), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Mark Wigglesworth (conductor), Music Hall, Cincinnati. 8.2.2013 (RDA)

Grieg: Piano Concerto
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10

Numbingly used in countless television commercials and targeted by plagiarizing pop music hacks, Grieg’s one and only Piano Concerto still retains its place as one of the most beloved compositions in concert literature. From the famous opening descending octaves through its dizzying bravura finale, the Grieg concerto requires a pianist with awesome technique, sensitivity, refinement—plus a flair for the broadly-sweeping moments of the opening Allegro, the soulfulness of the second movement, and an overall delicacy of touch and fastidious attention to detail. In short, it calls for a pianist in the Grand Romantic tradition. This listener could think of no one better equipped for this task than Simon Trpčeski, a formidable artist who came and conquered Cincinnati with his protean playing. It is hoped that the management of the CSO will be able to attract Mr. Trpčeski for a return engagement in a season soon to come.

Following the long-awaited death of Joseph Stalin in March of 1953, Dimitri Shostakovich must have opened a celebratory bottle of vodka and toasted his newly-regained artistic freedom. The Georgian-born Soviet strongman had made the composer’s life unbearable by having articles published in Pravda, the official Communist Party organ, denouncing Shostakovich as “a coarse, primitive and vulgar formalist petite bourgeois”—this in spite of the composer’s sincere and life-long affiliation with the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation. Shostakovich survived by remaining well under the Soviet cultural radar for more than the two decades during which his music was banned from concert halls throughout the USSR. He barely managed to make a living by anonymously writing film scores, all the while composing chamber music, solo instrumental pieces and songs “for his drawer.”

Of Shostakovich’s thirteen symphonies, the tenth is not the best known—the fifth easily takes that preferential position—but created at a point in the composer’s life when he desperately needed to write something of substance or perish, the symphony is the most emotionally-charged and the most filled with disenchantment over the beloved Russia that he had worshipped all his life.

But not all is numbing bleakness. Moments of sardonic defiance flash. Vigorous march tempi alternate with moody Slavic waltzes. The Tenth is replete with twists and turns, pressing questions and cryptic answers—quintessential Shostakovich material infused with anger and hope, and an ultimate glimpse of light in unrelentingly grey mid-century Leningrad.

The English maestro Mark Wigglesworth understands Shostakovich, and he demonstrated it in this concert, fervently conducting the lengthy score by memory. From this listener’s vantage point on the tenth row of Music Hall, one could see the maestro’s sober gestures—all at the service of the score—plus his intense emotional engagement and unerring eye contact with his musicians, drawing out the storm, fury, and pockets of existential pain.

Wigglesworth elicited a hugely emotional performance of an immensely complex score, earning a much-deserved standing ovation. He graciously acknowledged the first seats of the woodwinds: Joan Vorhees (piccolo), Dwight Perry (oboe), Jonathan Gunn (clarinet), William Winstead (bassoon), Elizabeth Freimuth (French horn) and Christopher Philpotts (English horn) and Associate Concertmaster Rebecca McMullan Culnan, each and every one deserving of high praise for their extraordinary playing.

Within the span of two hours, the CSO took its audience on a fabulous journey from Grieg’s nationalistic romanticism with Simon Trpčeski as its guide, to Shostakovich’s slavic modernism, with Mark Wigglesworth at its helm.

Rafael de Acha