Gaffigan Gives Enticing Mozart and Balletic Shostakovich

CanadaCanada Barber, Mozart and Shostakovich: Philippe Quint (violin), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, James Gaffigan (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, BC, 29.11.2014. (GN)

Barber: “Intermezzo” from Vanessa, Op. 32
Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 4, K. 218
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 “Leningrad”

In recent seasons, it has become common for younger soloists to appear with conductors of about the same age, and on this occasion, 35-year-old American conductor James Gaffigan was paired with 40-year-old Russian/American violinist Phillipe Quint. Quint has already produced three award-winning recordings of Bernstein, Korngold and William Schuman, while Gaffigan now conducts a great number of leading international orchestras, including a recent stint with the Vienna State Opera. Gaffigan’s offerings are varied and adventurous. In his appearance two years ago, he began with an intimate wind serenade by Richard Strauss, moved through Bernstein’s Serenade, and ended with Beethoven’s “Eroica.” This time, he started with the “Intermezzo” from Barber’s Vanessa, followed by a Mozart Violin Concerto and ended with Shostakovich’s massive “Leningrad” Symphony.

The Barber opener was attractive and refreshing; the conductor had considerable command over line and detail, and coaxed a well-shaped response from the strings. The Mozart Violin Concerto No. 4 was even finer, in part, because Gaffigan seems to be sensitive to issues of ‘authentic’ style. In his Beethoven last time, he made a conscientious effort to avoid bloated textures, and the result had the same clean feeling as, say, the late work of Claudio Abbado. The Mozart here had a similar awareness, featuring transparent textures, freshness, and nice characterization. Quint can produce a very sweet and clean tone when he needs to but what was impressive here was his variety and contrast. He dealt with the orchestral texture intelligently, creating intimacy at one moment, quicksilver athleticism at the next, and then tempered strength and eloquence for the longer line. The last movement had some notable moments where refinement contrasted with an almost rustic ‘fiddle’ projection.

What then is an ‘authentic’ performance of Shostakovich’s massive Leningrad Symphony?  Perhaps it is anyone’s guess. Its original anti-Nazi message has been scrutinized and debated since its inception, at one point even inducing Maxim Shostakovich to enter the discussion to explain his father’s intent. Even the legendary Mravinsky seem to shy away from the Seventh—he waited over a decade after its premiere (in 1942, conducted by Samosud) to record it. Furthermore, the composition was largely dismissed in the West, and gained the reputation early on as the composer’s least distinguished symphony—a veritable rag-bag of a creation. It was only after reconsideration of the late 1960s recordings by Yevgeny Svetlanov and Karel Ancerl, and a fresher approach by Bernard Haitink a decade later, that the work’s current credibility was established.

So, just how does one play the Seventh to reveal its true message and feeling? Of course, there is the Russian way with vivid, sharp contours and stark realism, but perhaps that veers too much into the programmatic. Gaffigan evidently wants to find a different type of structure and feeling, and to treat the piece more as absolute music. On one hand, his approach was softer and more cultivated; on the other, more naturalistic. From the opening, the upper strings had radiance and tender innocence, not unlike the ‘wayfarer’ feeling of Mahler’s First Symphony. Even the famous Bolero-like march that goes on and on seemed to be more balletic and rounded rather than caustic and angular. The end of this opening movement—with the ‘war’ between the upper strings and the brass—built cumulatively with a strong and consistent symphonic tread. This was music of conflict, but not of urgency or tangible human terror; the conflict was more cosmic, more general, like Bruckner.

The two middle movements, taken quite deliberately, reinforced this approach. String phrases sometimes hinted at the angelic, sometimes the pastoral, and occasionally opened out into a warm rich glow for mankind at large. These were not the expressions of immediate anxiety, and the bizarre and macabre allusions were minimized. The flute at the opening of the Adagio was very touching—again with almost a balletic underpinning—giving way to feelings of wonder and triumph. There was the apparition of Mahler’s Ninth, but hope was still present. Again, a cutting edge might have appeared in the finale, but did not. This was a rounded, warm treatment, featuring expert rhythmic control, and building with  Brucknerian dignity and inevitability to its close. The overall message, it seemed, was that Love, Beauty, Nature and Hope are bigger and more important than the ephemeralities of political conflict—a fascinating slant, almost as if Shostakovich were a devoutly religious man.

Geoffrey Newman


Previously published in a slightly different form on

Leave a Comment