Captivating Russian works from Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the San Francisco Symphony led by Salonen

United StatesUnited States Various: Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 13.6.2024. (HS)

Esa-Pekka Salonen acknowledges the audience’s enthusiastic welcome © Stefan Cohen/SFS

Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat major
Sofia GubaidulinaFairytale Poem for Orchestra
TchaikovskyFrancesca da Rimini

Leave it to conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen to do an all-Russian program without calling it that, and to choose music that might not be the first pieces which come to mind. On Thursday, the program started with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1. After an intermission, Sofia Gubaidulina’s 1971 Fairytale Poem paired with Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, works with little in common except that they are both tone poems by Russian composers.

The star vehicle for this concert featured on-the-rise cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, already a British MBE at the tender age of 25. Shostakovich’s half-hour-long concerto, a tour-de-force for the soloist, frames an aching, slow movement and extensive cadenza with jittery outer movements that wallow in the composer’s signature ominous atmosphere.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the San Francisco Symphony © Stefan Cohen/SFS

Kanneh-Mason gets the first notes, and he executed the brusque five-note motif with an appropriate feeling of anxious questioning. Salonen picked that up with the orchestra, and off they went into a musical dialogue that never lost a sense of held-back intensity. The movement’s abrupt ending came as a surprise, even though I knew it was coming.

The glory of the performance was the slow movement. Marked moderato, it glided in on lyrical playing from the strings, the cellist’s grittier response creating a welcome contrast. The movement developed before finally receding into a quiet repose. The cadenza entered almost imperceptibly. In the score, it is a whole separate movement of its own. With garlands from the celesta and soft punches from orchestral chords, the cello’s poetic melody gradually built up to an eye-opening, ear-dazzling flurry of double-stops, triple-stops, pizzicato with same-time arco phrases – all impressively executed.

That led smoothly to an increasingly ferocious finale, in which soloist and orchestra dug into the fast rhythms with unanimity. The original five-note motif got a juicy underlining as it returned in the final measures, only this time it is reduced to four notes, leading to a crisp finish.

As an encore, Kanneh-Mason offered Prelude No.18 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Soviet composer who was a contemporary of Shostakovich’s. A sort of lament-tinged sarabande, one of 24 that have become signature works for several top-tier cellists, the beautiful rendering harked back nicely to the slow movement of the concerto but with a different personality.

Salonen picked up a microphone to introduce Fairytale Poem, and the audience greeted him with a torrent of applause, a heartfelt tribute to a music director who recently announced that he is leaving the orchestra a year from now. In his remarks, Salonen point out that Soviet composers, trepidatious about writing very dissonant music for fear of earning rebukes (or worse) from the Soviet authorities, often ‘flew under the radar’ in works for radio and television which drew less scrutiny than concert pieces or operas did.

(As an aside, he pointed out that the same thing happened in the United States in the 1970s where composers could get away with levels of dissonance in TV and movie scores that would have been scorned in concerts.)

To our twenty-first century ears, Gubaidulina’s 1971 tone poem delivers plenty of charm. Despite an often-thorny musical language, it is easy to hear how the colors of her orchestration and taut sense of form could accompany the lovely little story by Czech author Miloš Macourek. A piece of white chalk dreams of drawing castles and seashores on a blackboard instead of math formulas. It finally gets the chance as a discarded nub when a boy rescues it and uses it to draw exactly those things.

The orchestral version, without narration, provided ten minutes of sonic delights, especially the fascinating interactions among woodwinds, harps and percussion.

Francesco da Rimini got a precise and carefully paced performance but lacked the surges and Romantic abandon of Tchaikovsky’s take on a chapter in Dante’s Inferno about a liaison between Francesca and the married Paolo. They end up in Dante’s second level of hell, so there is plenty of possible juice to the music. Although it pales in comparison to Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky’s other literary tone poem, it can whip up a storm when it gets an unbuttoned performance, which this was not.

Harvey Steiman

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