Shostakovich night – Care or not care

This might not be an easy evening for many people. Shostakovich Symphony No. 14 is more than 50 minutes with little exciting moments, while the 2nd half of the concert, you have 45 minutes of bombastic music, his Symphony No. 5. It is extremely difficult to program Shostakovich 14! A chamber string orchestra with a soprano and a bass, consisting only the non-typical percussion instruments. Valery Gergiev made a great effort to keep the flow since the soloists tend to drag from time to time. Although all 11 poems that Shostakovich chose deal with death, Gergiev proved that it does not have to be dragging to death.

I might be a little bias, but once Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcovici (one of the concert masters) walked out, I knew it would be a bad concert because he is the one who “does not care”. He sets such a bad example for the entire orchestra. Musically, he plays everything loud and harsh regardless the style of music (terrible solo in the 2nd movement of Shostakovich 5), he does not care about articulations and he plays out of tune. On the stage, he complains about his chair (both times I saw him as concert master) and requested to change it, looks around while not playing, very very loud page turning, always the last one to pick up his violin before an entrance (does he know he gets paid more?) and makes all sort of noises while his colleagues are playing solo passages. He makes me wonder if a concert master needs so much attention… His attitude is simply irresponsible to the composer, the conductor, his colleagues and most importantly, the audience. The concert is not about YOU.

In order to program Shostakovich 14, you really need “outstanding” violin players. According to the score, only 10 violins are required. As they are constantly playing two octaves apart (typical Russian), so you could imagine the 1st violins are mostly playing at very high register. The setting of Münchner Philharmoniker, having the 1st on conductor’s left and 2nd on the right, makes them even harder to play in tune. That being said, the 1st violins were mostly out of tune since the 5 of them had no confidence at all with their higher register. Usually, conductors would ask the lower strings to play out a little. But in this case, the 1st violins are too shy to make more sound, which ruined the whole intention and effect of the double octaves as the warm lower strings overshadowed the 1st violins.

Gergiev is so much better when you see him in live performance. Even though I still do not understand why he shakes his fingers (especially the beats before downbeats), it did not bother me too much because he has much more to offer to the orchestra. I hope someday I would find out what quality of sound he is looking for by shaking the beats. Unfortunately, Münchner Philharmoniker did not respond to Gergiev. The most obvious example is the last movement of Shostakovich 5. Gergiev showed the accents of two eighth-notes and less for the subsequent four sixteenth-notes, which repeated for several times. Outrageously, the orchestra played everything at the same level, ignoring what Gergiev has shown them. Well, we are not expecting Gergiev to be extremely clear with his hands, but he did show phrasings and emphasized certain characters of the Russian music that none from the orchestra has picked up.

To my taste, the whole string section has a wrong color for Shostakovich. It sounded too warm, lacking the taste of coldness and vastness. The few moments that I really enjoyed are the solo passages of Michael Martin Kofler (flute), Marie-Luise Modersohn (oboe) and Laszlo Kuti (clarinet). They have their own way of interpreting Russian music, showing that they care about the sound they are producing. Their solos gave the audience the sense of loneliness, coldness and emptiness, giving us an exceptional 3rd movement. As an audience, I feel comforting to see the wind section’s interaction. They communicate during performance, trying to fine-tune their sound as a group. There was one moment when the chord was not particularly in tune, and all four principals turned to each other after that and Kofler made a sign with his hand. Are you not pleased when you see that they actually care?

Concert on December 22nd, 2011

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