Civilized Mozart and Hair-Raising Shostakovich from Gerard Schwarz

United StatesUnited States “Russian Spectacular”: Vladimir Feltsman (piano), Ignat Solzhenitsyn (piano, Julian Schwarz (cello), Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 9-17.5.2013 (BJ)


Tchaikovsky: Suite No. 4 in G major, Mozartiana
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488 (with Vladimir Feltsman)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor


Mozart: Symphony No. 35 in D major, K. 385, “Haffner”
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453 (with Vladimir Feltsman)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor


Shostakovich: October, Op. 132
Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 35, (with Ignat Solzhenitsyn)
Symphony No. 5, Op. 47


Shostakovich: Festive Overture, Op. 96
Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 107
Symphony No. 11, Op. 103, The Year 1905


For what amounted to a mini-festival with the Seattle Symphony, former music director Gerard Schwarz offered a concentrated series of four concerts within the space of two weeks.

The heavy hitting in the series repertoire was entrusted to two symphonies each by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. For several years now Schwarz has ranked in my estimation as one of the two or three outstanding exponents of the music of Shostakovich, and his affinity with it was powerfully evidenced by eloquent performances of the Fifth and Eleventh Symphonies. In No. 5, the more familiar of the two, I thought the extraordinary accented sfff chords in the double basses near the end of the slow movement were a shade lacking in bite, but for the rest pacing, phrasing, orchestral texture, and dynamic shading were all handled with consummate skill and intensity. And there were passages where Schwarz’s favored split disposition of the violin sections to his left and right once again paid rich musical dividends in clarifying and dramatizing Shostakovich’s own exploitation of spatial effects.

No. 11, has always been a Schwarz speciality. This was the third time I have heard him conduct it. The first time, some eighteen years ago, I realized about forty minutes into the uninterrupted hour-long course of the music that I had been forgetting to breathe, so enthralling, so utterly spellbinding, was the musical discourse, and Schwarz’s way with the piece has if anything gained in conviction with each repetition. Back in 2006, Valery Gergiev, whom one might expect to excel in Shostakovich, brought his Kirov (or Mariinsky Theater) Orchestra to Seattle with a performance of the Eleventh, and it was instructive to compare his relatively anemic account of it with Schwarz’s positively hair-raising reading; Jonathan Pasternack’s performance with the University of Washington Symphony two years ago came much closer to rivaling Schwarz’s mastery of the work’s epic message.

By contrast with Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky is not a composer I have particularly associated with this conductor, though he has performed him often enough. Nevertheless, the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies were both given committed and cogent performances. It’s fashionable in some circles to regard Tchaikovsky as a lesser symphonist than Mahler. But in contrast with Mahler’s sometimes formally ramshackle if spiritually involving structures, Tchaikovsky’s essays in the genre are organized with unerring skill and judgment, and the formal integrity of these two works shone out in Schwarz’s assured and strongly expressive yet never self-indulgent interpretations.

The Fourth Symphony begins with what is surely the greatest movement the Russian master ever wrote, and Schwarz led a performance that worthily realized its often elusive rhythmic subtlety, its intricately layered textural complexity, and the grand scale of its formal design. The impact was heightened by incisive contributions from the horn and heavy brass sections, and by admirably pointed timpani-playing by Michael Crusoe, who was as sensitive in pianissimo as he was crisp in more assertive passages. Next evening No. 5 was very nearly as well done, though it was possible to cavil at a detail of tone or intonation at a few points.

Along with excellent work by the strings, these two performances were also notable for some superb playing from the woodwinds. We enjoyed, especially in the heavily clarinet-focused Fifth Symphony, the luxury of guest appearances by the recently appointed associate principal clarinet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Burt Hara, one of the finest clarinetists in the country, whom I admired inordinately when I lived in Philadelphia and he served briefly as principal there. (Incidentally, when Christopher Sereque resumed his seat as principal for the Shostakovich week, he too played beautifully.) Ben Hausmann’s eloquent phrasing of the main theme in the second movement of No. 4, solos of characteristic artistry by Demarre McGill on flute and Seth Krimsky on bassoon, and some sparkling interjections from Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby’s piccolo all helped to make this a Tchaikovsky Fourth of exceptional beauty and expressive power.

The big symphonies were preceded on each program by works of smaller scale but no lesser interest. The second Shostakovich evening opened with the Festive Overture, familiar enough fare, but the curtain-raiser for the other one came for me as a welcome surprise: October, a late, dramatic tone-poem, composed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1917 revolution, that I had never heard before. About 13 minutes long, it intersperses virtual orchestral battle scenes with hushed and mysteriously threatening passages. Fascinatingly, the outcome of the first of the battles seems by no means clear, but in the concluding one victory is palpably in the air—a difference of atmosphere that may be inherent in the music, but on this occasion could be credited also to Schwarz’s insightful shaping of the score.

Tchaikovsky worshipped Mozart, whom he claimed not merely to like but to “adore and idolize.” Nevertheless, though their music does share a sovereign clarity of texture, he didn’t often write like his idol. One striking exception is the last of his four orchestral suites, specifically titled Mozartiana, which comprises arrangements of four Mozart pieces. It was thus a good idea, if something of a no-brainer, to offer it as an appetizer (or “amuse-oreille”) to inaugurate the first week’s pair of Mozart-Tchaikovsky programs.

It’s a very attractive piece, and the third movement in particular, extracted and varied by Tchaikovsky from Liszt’s piano paraphrase of Mozart’s sublime Ave verum corpus, is orchestrated with the airy grace of real genius. Former music director Gerard Schwarz used an orchestra of modest Mozartean proportions in this first half of the concert, and similar forces were on hand to start the second evening. The performance of the “Haffner” Symphony that began the latter concert was, however, not one of Schwarz’s best. The outer movements went with a splendid swing. But though the tempo he set for the Andante was only a hair slower than contemporary Mozartean practice favors, that small difference in pace, coupled with consistent subdivision of the beat, resulted in a distinctly heavy feeling in this graceful music.

Along with the various pleasures provided by the orchestra throughout the mini-series, there were outstanding soloists on hand for the four concertos programmed. Ignat Solzhenitsyn, himself no mean Shostakovich exponent as a conductor, accomplished miracles of prestidigitation in the composer’s First Piano Concerto, and Julian Schwarz, the conductor’s remarkably gifted son, was scarcely less impressive in the First Cello Concerto; they were capably partnered in the important trumpet and horn parts that feature respectively in the two concertos by David Gordon and Jeffrey Fair.

Russian-ness and spectacle aside, some of the finest artistic results in this intriguingly programmed set of concerts came with music that was not Russian and was subtle and civilized rather than spectacular. I refer to the two Mozart piano concertos that were central to the first week’s programs. In the past, I’ve had mixed experiences with Vladimir Feltsman, but this time his performances were an unmixed delight.

From the very beginning of the A-major Concerto, K. 488, which saw him joining in the opening orchestral ritornello in approved “H.I.P.” (“historically informed performance”) fashion, Feltsman showed a wonderfully relaxed sense of Mozart style. Partnered alertly by the orchestra, his playing, while ravishingly delicate at times, was blessedly free from the kind of “walking on eggshells” affectation that too often emasculates Mozart performance, and he called forth the radiant lyricism of both first movements, the profound pathos of K. 488’s Adagio and the meditative depth of the Andante in K. 453 (enhancing both with some discreet embellishment), and the impetuous dash and boisterous humor of the two finales with equal conviction.

With just three rehearsals, instead of the more usual four, available for each program, “Russian Spectacular” was a taxing assignment for all concerned. But—perhaps less surprisingly since conductor and orchestra had already played most (or even all?) of the twelve works together, even if in some cases several years ago—it turned out to be a resounding success. I look forward to other comparable enterprises in creative programming in the Seattle Symphony’s future.

Bernard Jacobson