Nézet-Séguin, Philadelphia Orchestra deliver the power in Shostakovich minus the chill

Wed Mar 07, 2018 at 1:22 pm

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony Tuesday night at the Music Center at Strathmore.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra made their semi-annual visit to the Washington area on Tuesday night. Washington Performing Arts again presented this venerable ensemble, one of the country’s best orchestras, this time in the Music Center at Strathmore.

While the group’s 2017 concert at the Kennedy Center focused on France, Tuesday’s program consisted of a single work—Shostakovich’s substantial Seventh Symphony. (At the recent Philadelphia performance,  Joshua Bell also played Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2, sadly omitted here.)

The Seventh is one of the composer’s most popular symphonies, last heard from Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2012. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 galvanized Shostakovich’s patriotism, even though it had only been a few years since the official condemnation of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Stalin’s regime, too, embraced the symphony, seeing in it “a heady propaganda weapon, evoking both inspiration and defiance,” in the words of scholar Laurel Fay.

To be sure, the Philadelphians played the piece to the hilt, and the music’s loudest climaxes in the first and fourth movements reached ear-splitting volume. Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation seemed focused on speed and martial crispness, but with a curious reverse effect in the first movement. Taken at a fairly fast pace and with clipped, almost glib articulations, the invasion march in the second half lost much of its menace and became more comical, less like a pitiless military advance and more like the accompaniment to a comedy skit.

Musicologists have found parallels in this march tune to a Franz Lehár operetta aria and to the Nazi anthem Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, and Shostakovich twists it around an evocation of the mechanical crescendo of Ravel’s Bolero. There is comedy in Shostakovich’s music, of course, but this screwball march should be more chilling, the humor more grim than it came off in this rendition.

In this section and in others, hasty tempos slightly unsettled the unity of the orchestral ensemble, too, with the violins not always together in the opening section of the symphony. The first movement’s highlights, other than the domineering volume of the brass, were all in the woodwinds, including oboe, piccolo, and bassoon.

Nézet-Séguin’s tempo choice, communicated with enthusiastic, precise movements, also seemed a little fast in the second movement initially, making the superb, shrieking E-flat clarinet solo not as much of a contrast. In later sections he and the musicians found a more reflective nostalgia, especially in the bass clarinet solo accompanied by low, fluttering flutes. The third movement had many gorgeous, elegiac moments, especially in a silvery flute duet and the shimmering violin sound at its best in its serenade late in the movement.

Not surprisingly, Nézet-Séguin went for the throat again in the finale, which made for many thrills. He and his musicians perfectly staged the cinematic conclusion of the piece, which suddenly erupts in a C major sweep that would not be out of place in a film epic like Lawrence of Arabia. Shostakovich missed most of the worst of the siege of Leningrad, having been evacuated to a safer location in the country’s temporary capital.

Laurel Fay notes that Shostakovich’s Soviet patriotism had limits, even in the midst of the Nazi invasion. He staunchly resisted suggestions that the finale of the Seventh Symphony could be strengthened by adding a chorus extolling Stalin. Conceding to that demand would have made a already bombastic symphony truly insufferable.

2 Responses to “Nézet-Séguin, Philadelphia Orchestra deliver the power in Shostakovich minus the chill”

  1. Posted Mar 07, 2018 at 5:23 pm by Wayne

    A pretty poor excuse for a review. Maybe it was where I was sitting, but I thought the strings played together quite well, and he also misunderstands that the Nazis are being lampooned because he also was lampooning Stalin and the need for mechanical regimentation. Has this guy never heard the 6th symphony?

  2. Posted Mar 07, 2018 at 7:31 pm by Laura Youens

    Strong words! Your comments about the first movement are particularly informative.

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