Cinematic Rachmaninoff and Soft Shostakovich from Simone Lamsma and Otto Tausk

CanadaCanada Wagner, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff: Simone Lamsma (violin), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Otto Tausk (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 14.1.2017. (GN)

Simone Lamsma and Otto Tausk © Matthew Baird
Simone Lamsma and Otto Tausk © Matthew Baird

Wagner – Overture to The Flying Dutchman
Shostakovich – Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor Op.77/99
RachmaninoffSymphonic Dances Op. 45

The sellout at this concert offered a salutary reminder of just how far audience appreciation has advanced over the years. Not that many decades ago, combining Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances would have been a ‘tough sell’ indeed. Even finding recordings of the latter would have been difficult, and there were simply no readings of the Shostakovich by any violinist other than David Oistrakh. Now this pairing of works seems almost too accessible and commonplace. But how well has the soul of the works survived? Few can forget the bitter, gnawing pain and biting sharpness of expression in Oistrakh’s pioneering readings, but on this occasion young Simone Lamsma and conductor Otto Tausk gave one of the most relaxed and romantically-contoured traversals I have ever heard. Dipping back to Sir Eugene Goossens’ traversal of the Symphonic Dances in the late 1950s (and Andre Previn’s in the 1970s), one always felt without a shadow of doubt that the work was a summing up of a Russian composer’s life. Yet in Tausk’s hands, one is not so sure; perhaps the work bears a debt to film music from Berlin in the 1920s, with a touch of the parody of Kurt Weill, among other things. The audience was strongly responsive to both performances, but one might ponder exactly what musical spirit they were responding to.

The concert started on relatively safe terrain: Wagner’s Flying Dutchman overture. Maestro Tausk gave a creditable performance that showed a strong talent for clarifying string lines and building frisson in climaxes. However, he seemed weaker in achieving Wagnerian amplitude and aura over the whole. The winds appeared reluctant to establish their contemplative, human side, and the ‘atmosphere’ of the opera itself was incompletely suggested. Tausk’s tendency to remain precise and metrical – and not push the rhythms out with dramatic breadth – also made things a little short-winded.

One also had to be impressed with the clean lines and evident poise of young Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma at the start of the Shostakovich concerto. Nonetheless, this was careful playing, making a great effort to bring a coherent lyrical flow to the writing but seldom venturing very close to its stark, icy fabric. What surfaced was a degree of angst (perhaps akin to the opening of Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 1), yet the sheer intensity of the pain, and the space and loneliness within its confines, were not fully etched. Both the orchestra and the soloist seemed too romantically shaped and fluid; there needed to be a greater pungency in the winds, and the strings and various pizzicato needed to be tighter and more stabbing. There is a reason for starting the work with severity: it allows the greater feeling and shape of the later Passacaglia to emerge as a true development of the work. Here the latter movement seemed more of an extension of this opening Nocturne. There is a degree of savagery in the Scherzo, but again the accent was more on the comfortable and the playful. The great long cadenza was strongly negotiated by Lamsma, yet fell short of the intensity of communication needed for a full soliloquy. It tended more to the objective than the personal. The rhythms of the Burlesque (led by the xylophone) ended the work successfully, though they too might have had more satiric inflection and verve.

There was admittedly a lot of restrained beauty in this performance – and one cannot doubt the immense talent of Simone Lamsma. However, the reading perpetuated the growing tendency to turn the Shostakovich into a generic ‘romantic’ violin concerto. This interpretation remained too pretty and too soft for the subject matter; it needed to be taken up a notch in intensity and grip. The concerto remains a truly individual work – one of the starkest presentations of the inner workings of a pained soul – and it is clearly dangerous territory for young artists who have never felt this pain.

Otto Tausk’s treatment of the Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was quite eye-opening as a rethink of this composition, working back from the enigmatic Andante (‘Dusk’) with its slightly bizarre grotesqueries and innovative instrumentation (a saxophone is employed) to create a different and more ‘modern’ look from the beginning. Here, nostalgic recourse to the composer’s long string lines becomes less important than the task of uncovering complex and novel harmonic tensions throughout the work, and imparting a cinematic feel to the composer’s Dies Irae focus. In fact, the string lines were given more with precision than expansive languor throughout and were typically juxtaposed with competing instrumental colour.

The distinctive features of the opening movement began with the wind choir, typically contemplative and searching. Here the wind lines were articulated with so much interest in their harmonic dissonances that it reminded me of something one might find in Viennese music at the beginning of the twentieth century or in more abstract music later on. These were followed with ‘march’ themes that suggested the off-centered feel and rhythmic snap of Kurt Weill. Sometimes a hint of Mahler even came forth. So we quickly learned that this is not the ‘Russian’ Rachmaninoff sitting comfortably in Long Island piecing together the valuable remnants of his past, but a composer much less settled, finding new musical resources to express the personal doubts and fantasies of his maturity. Tausk spared nothing in bringing out the ‘strangeness’ of the Andante, sensual and crazed, seductive and macabre – almost like a movie and certainly like cabaret music – ending in such a sad waltz, with bizarre flicks of phrase. The festival of fantasy continued in the finale, largely free of any romantic padding and obvious Russian sentiment. One found hints of Zemlinsky’s unresolved tonalities, dissonances in the wind choir again, yet somehow I also gleaned Debussy’s Images and a fragment of Khachaturian flying by. The exuberant ending was more a study in abandoned momentum than Russian fervour.

Tausk’s traversal exhibited considerable imagination, and it did make the work more daring and colourful. In principle, it also highlighted and extended some of the instrumental innovations that the composer initiated in his Third Symphony five years earlier. But in toning down the work’s Russian character and much of its ambient warmth, it took some unnecessary license with the composer’s vision and sound. I am almost certain that some of the ‘modern’ gestures and cinematics introduced along the way were not the composer’s intention. They were likely present because of the young conductor’s training and specialization. Tausk has recorded ample modern music: Korngold, Pfitzner and much beyond. All the same, the traversal was intriguing in letting one think about what this work could look like.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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