Nézet-Séguin Captures Expressive Range and Individuality of a Great Shostakovich Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Shostakovich: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 3.12.2016. (BJ)

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16

Shostakovich – Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43

All of the advance publicity was about Yefim Bronfman playing Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, but it was the Shostakovich symphony after intermission that constituted the real event at this Philadelphia Orchestra concert.

The Fourth Symphony is a work with a strange and dramatic history. It was, one might say, the opposite of a breakthrough for the composer, who was 29 when he wrote it. At that time, aspects of several of his works, most notably his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, earned him the disapproval of the Soviet artistic establishment and eventually of no lesser a connoisseur of the arts than Joseph Stalin. Under the resulting pressures, having arranged for a premiere in December 1936, Shostakovich withdrew the score in the middle of rehearsals. The work languished in limbo until 1961, when the world premiere finally took place under Kirill Kondrashin’s direction.

The first performance outside the USSR was given at the following year’s Edinburgh Festival by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, and it was followed by a London premiere a few days later by the same artists, which I attended. (Eugene Ormandy led the US premiere in Philadelphia in 1963). At the London performance, the composer himself was seated in the ceremonial box at the Royal Festival Hall. And throughout the work’s roughly 65-minute duration, he sat motionless with his head buried in his hands. It was impossible not to feel, given the emergence of the symphony from its 25-year suppression, that he must be contemplating with deep emotion the composer he might have become if it had not been for political pressures. For it is scarcely deniable that the Fourth is infinitely more complex, forward-looking, and individualistic in style and content than the Fifth Symphony of 1937, the score of which bore the heading Creative reply of a Soviet artist to just criticism.

Still probably Shostakovich’s most popular symphony, No.5 is a highly effective and dramatic work. But No.4, more fascinatingly, explores an extraordinary range of expressive, dramatic, and quasi-narrative ideas, in a manner suggestive of rapid cinematic cross-cutting, a technique he was to revisit only once in any depth in the Second Cello Concerto of 1966.

Nézet-Séguin showed a sure touch in reconciling such momentary shifts of musical perspective with the preservation of an overarching structural line. If memory serves, his reading was at some points a shade less dramatic than Rozhdestvensky’s back in 1962, but on the other hand the ensemble playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra was close to flawless, while the many important woodwind solos—especially by principal bassoon Daniel Matsukawa—were shaped with unfailing grace and poignancy. The impact the work had on the audience was evidenced at the end by a lengthy silent pause before applause broke out.

As for the much anticipated Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto that had begun the evening, the work itself is one that I personally find a bit silly. Like all of the composer’s five piano concertos, it emulates the Grand Old Duke of York with his ten thousand men, marching the solo part up to the top of keyboard and marching it down again, without ever quite settling to good effect in any particular register. On this occasion, what George Bernard Shaw would have called the soloist’s  “marksmanship” was, as ever, pretty well impeccable. I have never found Yefim Bronfman to be a notably poetic pianist, nor his tone to be especially beguiling, but he is a good match for a concerto that makes no demands in such realms of expression, and this, as I remarked last time I heard him play it, was “a serviceable performance, supported by some crackerjack contributions from the orchestra.”

Bernard Jacobson

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