Contrasting Aspects of Shostakovich’s Personality Plus Gershwin

 Gershwin, Shostakovich: Terrence Wilson (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Lawrence Renes (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 16.5.2014 (SRT)

Gershwin:  Rhapsody in Blue
Shostakovich:  Jazz Suite No. 2
Symphony No. 10

Tonight gave us both sides of Shostakovich’s musical personality in stark contrast.  The second half featured the Tenth Symphony, still his most popular (and arguably his greatest), despite all its brooding intensity.  That intensity was showcased in some playing of brilliant contrasts, be it the dark, heavy sound of the cellos and basses in the opening, or the characterful wind solos that starred in the rest of the movement, Katherine Bryan’s breathy flute perhaps the best of all.  Those same winds could then project out their terrifying trills in the scherzo, full of demonic energy that actually managed to grow in intensity through its short span, and the episodic finale gave everyone their moment in the sun.  Best of all, though, was the third movement, the most personal section, with its thematic references both to the composer himself and to Elmira, the student with whom he became infatuated.  Her theme brought horn playing of crystalline clarity, and I enjoyed the way the DSCH theme got just as much humour out of the other sections as it did from the winds that introduced it.  Lawrence Renes managed the tricky task of smiling and frowning with equal passion as the music demanded, allowing the rhythm to go slightly off centre when it helped.

  That wasn’t necessary for the four-square melodic swing of the Second Jazz Suite, which was all sleek sophistication married with a lightness of touch that belied the huge size of the orchestra.  The opening march was tremendous fun, and the four saxophones exuded charm in the waltzes, which also featured a winsome sweep in the string sound.  Special mention to the wizard on the xylophone, though, who added colour throughout but especially deserved his own bow in the finale.

  The RSNO have become fairly highly regarded in American music since Peter Oundjian took them over (see here for a review of their American piano concertos disc) and they did a great job with the Rhapsody in Blue.  They play with a wonderful sheen in their tone, and that lazy, almost sleazy relationship with the bar lines that you really need for Gershwin.  Not only the famous clarinet, but trumpet and trombone sounded like they were having a whale of a time in their solos.  At times, though, it seemed as though Terrence Wilson was trying to turn it into a piano party to which the orchestra were only just invited.  In particular, I wondered if he and Renes had disagreed over the tempo relations, because he ran at some of his cadenzas in a way that felt totally out of keeping with the orchestral passage that had preceded them.  The first one, in particular, was jarringly fast, as were some of his other passages, and his duetting with the orchestral instruments was often rather poorly integrated.  That said, his playing was undeniably impressive (he’s a born showman, for all that I might not have liked his musicianship) and his encore – a jazz version of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca – was utterly ridiculous, but a lot of fun none the less.

Simon Thompson

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