The last time Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) appeared on a Symphoria concert, he was represented by the thorny and irascible clarinet concerto he composed toward the end of his life. He returns this evening with the more direct and affable Helios Overture. Inspired by a Greek sojourn in 1903, it represents the journey of the sun across the sky from sunrise (evoked by mysterious horn calls over sustained strings) until sunset over the sea. The work is not in any way patriotic, but the big tune that emerges as the sun moves toward the zenith has that same heart-tugging quality we hear, say, in Parry’s Jerusalem. No surprise that it achieved iconic status as a New Year’s staple on the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was capable of writing a similarly heart-tugging tune, as Finlandia makes clear. And we hear an echo of that kind of nobility in the second theme in the first movement of his Violin Concerto. But for the most part, the Violin Concerto is a far darker and more ambiguous work that the Helios Overture. It was begun in 1902 and first performed in 1904; this first version pleased neither the critics nor the difficult-to-satisfy composer, however, and it was radically revised in 1905.
The ambiguities mark the concerto from its very beginning: “One can play the opening either as fire or as ice,” says our soloist Caroline Goulding. And although, either way, the intensity creates a kind of numbing effect, the artist has to make a choice. Caroline herself has changed her perspective over the years “from one extreme to the other—from hot to cold—like an ice forest.” It’s not only the mood that’s ambiguous. The concerto, especially the first movement, is formally challenging, too, with so many climaxes—especially in the cadenza, disconcertingly placed in the center of the first movement—that without careful judgment on the part of the performers, listeners can easily lose track of what Caroline calls “the story.”
The work is disorienting other ways, too. Standing at the turn of the century, it simultaneously looks back to romantic ideals and looks ahead to more modernist scores (Caroline thinks particularly of the Berg Violin Concerto). A good performance needs to be able to capture the way these elements intertwine. Then, too, while it’s a virtuoso work, it’s not a typical virtuoso vehicle. Our final casual concert, “The Birth of the Concerto,” charts the development of the concerto as a genre from the concerto grosso (where the soloists are first among equals integrated into the orchestra) to the early nineteenth-century ideal where the soloist stood above the orchestra. The Sibelius is not in any way an old-fashioned, much less a neo-baroque, concerto—but we do see less dialogue, more collaboration. The result, says Caroline, is more “symphonic” than most traditional virtuoso vehicles are: “There’s less contrast between soloist and orchestra—it’s all one.”
In the end, it’s a concerto like none other, either before or after—one that never takes the easy path. It demands our constant attention—and rewards it fully. No wonder is has become the 20th century’s most popular violin concerto.
On the surface, the Fifth Symphony (1937) by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) may seem much more straightforward than the Sibelius Concerto; but in the years after Shostakovich’s death, its fundamental meaning has become increasingly contested. It was composed during the most repressive period of Soviet history. Shostakovich, one of the darlings of the regime, suddenly fell out of favor and became the subject of virulent attack in Pravda for his excessive modernism. As a result, he withdrew his radical Fourth Symphony (already in rehearsal but never yet performed) and produced a Fifth that was far more conservative in its musical idiom and far more heroic in its overall trajectory, especially in its final pages, modelled after those in the Mahler First (which we’ll be presenting next year). The new symphony was presented as a peace offering to the powers that be (he called it “a Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism”)—and it immediately took its audiences by storm, not only in the Soviet Union, but in the West as well, especially during the Second World War.
Four years after Shostakovich’s death, however, Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov published Testimony, which he claimed to be memoirs that Shostakovich had dictated to him. According to Testimony, the Fifth is an ironic work; it doesn’t celebrate the triumph of communism but rather impresses on its listeners the pains of living under totalitarianism. Any apparent rejoicing heard in the finale is, in fact, “forced.” Under the influence of Testimony, performance practice for the symphony, especially the finale, began to change. The Fifth became darker and more brutal and, in the final pages, much slower. If there is triumph, these performances suggest, it is the grim determination of those who manage to hold out against unbearable pressure.
Testimony itself, though, was not the last word. After its publication, many musicians and scholars questioned its authenticity. As a consequence, “proper” interpretation has remained a vexed issue for 35 years. Should we take our cue from the fact that Shostakovich himself had lauded Leonard Bernstein’s unambiguously upbeat account during the New York Philharmonic’s tour of the Soviet Union in 1959? Or should we follow the lead of many (but not all) of Shostakovich’s closest friends, including cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who took the revisionist approach? Conductor Larry Loh finds himself closer to the latter camp, stressing the heaviness of oppression in the final pages: “It’s as if every bow of the 16th notes that the strings are playing, each one, should be played with maximum effort. Every single detail should be at the maximum at the end.” As listeners, he expects us to be exhausted and chilled—but, paradoxically, elated at the same time, both because of our recognition of Shostakovich’s musical accomplishment (“so many layers of meaning”) and because of our own experiences: “You really feel as if you’ve peaked a mountain at the very end. People should feel spent, elated, accomplished.”
Peter J. Rabinowitz | prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org