Schulhoff Trumps Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky Trumps All

United StatesUnited States Schulhoff, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Mark Inouye (trumpet), San Francisco Symphony, James Conlon (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, 24.4.2014  (HS)

Schulhoff: Symphony No. 5, “Allegro con brio”
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35
Tchaikovsky:  Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétiquè

Shostakovich, conductor James Conlon told a curious audience Thursday, provided the link to tie together this program with the San Francisco Symphony in this week’s subscription concerts. The great 20th-century Russian composer made a logical lead-in to a popular work by arguably Russia’s greatest 19th-century composer, Tchaikovsky. The Czech composer Ervín Schulhoff, among those suppressed by Hitler and whom Conlon has long championed, received personal encouragement on visits to Shostakovich, Conlon told us, creating a connection to the opening work, the Allegro con brio from Schulhoff’s Symphony No. 5.

Through no fault of Conlon’s, the Schulhoff scherzo, which debuted in 1938, overshadowed the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor. The conductor did his best to inject the necessary crispness and tart wit into the concerto, even if the usually admirable solo pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet never quite got into the swing of things. Tchaikovsky’s emotionally wrought “Pathétique” Symphony topped them both, Conlon marshaling the individual elements of the orchestra into a sighing, heaving, magnificently expressive whole.

That budding friendship with Shostakovich might have inspired the sarcasm and nasty wit of Schulhoff’s scherzo, which launched itself with hammering, almost jazzy, figures in the brass and percussion, then receded only slightly in a restless trio, only to return with even more force in a thrusting finish. This came off as a no-holds-barred performance. One could only wish the whole symphony had been programmed, replacing the Shostakovich.

The piano concerto premiered in 1933, well before the composer fell afoul of Stalin after the 1936 debut of his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District. The concerto’s sunny, devil-may-care sass and harmonic playfulness brought plenty of smiles. Conlon drew bright, snappy playing from the orchestra, and the secondary soloist Mark Inouye, the orchestra’s principal trumpet, caught all of the rhythmic verve and poke-in-the-ribs melodic fun. Thibaudet, however, his eyes glued to the score, seemed to be running through the music with less intensity than the others. There was a soft edge to his playing. It came off as a bit sleepy. He always seemed to be a micro-beat behind.

The Tchaikovsky symphony begins quietly, with a few nudges of chords out of which a solo bassoon emerges with strands of a dour melody. It ends, 45 minutes later, with sighs of resignation that eventually dissipate to silence. Conlon caught all that, and invested the music in between with vividness in a performance that always seemed to be “in the moment,” neither looking back nor ahead but creating that necessary sense of freshness, of improvisation, that it’s all being created on the spot.

That’s hard enough to accomplish in any music, but with something as familiar and on ground as well-trodden as the Pathétique it’s something of a miracle. The opening pages seemed to be groping toward something, circling back on the original bassoon melody until it reached a climax that still had a sense of tentativeness. The gorgeously tender melody in the strings, so well known, had just enough hesitation to feel fresh.

As that effort eventually dwindled, Conlon got the orchestra to muscle up into an intense and concentrated development. When the balm of the famous string melody returned, the tension gradually eased into a fadeout that found low brass playing with consummate delicacy.

The second movement, a waltz in 5/4, breezed by with amazing delicacy. Usually the rhythm is emphasized, but Conlon made it seem relaxed and stately. The scherzo that follows recaptured the energy of the first movement’s development section, Conlon constantly pushing the beat just enough to make the recurring march hurtle into a tremendous climax. This always draws applause—so much that even Conlon holding his baton aloft couldn’t stop. But in this beautifully responsive performance, the finale, with its massive cries in the strings, its growling muted horns and soft percussion interruptions, created a sense of inevitability to the ultimate dying away.

Harvey Steiman

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