Tuesday, October 19, 2010

awkward but awesome

Saturday, October 16 2010

Berlin Philharmonic
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Baiba Skride, violin

Alban Berg, Violin Concerto
Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 8

Though Shostakovich’s Eighth is far from his best symphony, in the hands of Andris Nelsons it became a brutal masterpiece. The Latvian conductor brims with wild podium contortions, but of a different sort than Leonard Bernstein or Michael Tilson Thomas. Where those two shine with charisma, their every move an extension of their extroverted personalities, Nelsons possesses something more demonic. His hunch and cadaverous outstretched arms propelled Shostakovich’s music with a fierceness which seems to burn from within the score. Bernstein imposes his personality onto the music, crafting official Lenny performances; Nelsons digs out the inner grit of the music and manifests its spirit. He makes motions that are off-putting but remarkably effective, evoking the awkward intensity of the great Wilhelm Furtw√§ngler.

Written in the midst of World War II, Shostakovich’s Eighth mimics the fighting spirit of his Leningrad Symphony, draws on some of the stony belligerence of the Fourth, and points ahead to the dark lyricism of the Tenth. But unlike those three, it is unfortunately unbalanced—only the first half of the hour-long piece, divided into five movements, fully engages. The opening movement achieves the classic Shostakovich long-range, methodical build-up from eerie near-silence to psychotic loudness. The Berlin Philharmonic, who can play the most astonishing pianissimo I have ever heard, reveled in the contrasts, going from a haze of soft strings to a volcanic eruption of noise. The rattling sonic booms towards the end of the movement reminded me just a little bit of my good ol’ CSO.

After the drama of the beginning, though, the rest of the symphony just seems like stock Soviet Shostakovich: the grotesque, bitter quasi-scherzo; the badass super-fast movement; the circus ruckus of a finale. Nelsons was the saving grace, pushing the limits of volume on the orchestra and creating a compelling narrative even when the composer tended not to.

Berg’s Violin Concerto comprised the first half of the program, in a radiant performance by fellow Latvian Baiba Skride. Skride vividly captured the intense range of emotions required from the soloist—from the brittleness of the opening, through the hesitant Viennese lilt of the middle, to the introspection of the quote from Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug.” She made an excellent partner both for Nelsons and the members of the orchestra, often turning towards the concertmaster and finding her voice within the ensemble—especially appropriate for a piece which resembles chamber music more than virtuoso showpiece. Her sweetly singing rendition of the andante from Bach’s A-minor suite for violin made a poignant encore.

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