Review: TSO Shostakovich 8th

Since this site went live back in January, I have been remiss in posting almost exclusively items on transit even though there is another side to my life:  performing arts.  I will try to put items here, even though they may be short-lived, when I attend a particularly fine performance that others should know about.

On Wednesday evening, I attended the TSO’s concert, part of their Shostakovich centenary celebration this season.  On the program were Piano Concerto No. 1 with Alexander Toradze as the soloist and Symphony No. 8.  Stefan Sanderling conducted.

The concerto dates from 1933 and is full of the composer’s trademark wit from that period.  In addition to the piano solo, it features a solo trumpet part played to great effect by the TSO’s principal trumpet, Andrew McCandless.  By the time we reach the last movement (following a haunting mid-section), the piano has become a crazed jazz instrument against which the trumpet plays unending triplets, almost as if it were stuck on the opening of the William Tell Overture.  Great fun, but only for one night because on Thursday Toradze will play the second concerto dating from 1957.

The symphony, which will be repeated on Thursday, is stunning.  Like Symphony No. 11 played by the TSO earlier this season, this work has a subtext, one which caused the work to be suppressed for many years.  It is one of the wartime symphonies (the herioc No. 7, Leningrad, is probably better known), but it does not celebrate victory.  Instead, it begins with the horror of war and ends with a sense that it is all happening again.  Stalin continued from within what the Nazis tried to do from without.

The long first movement opens quietly but with a threatening tone.  This slowly builds to a long, sustained climax that plasters the listener against the back wall of the auditorium.  This is not heroic war, only pure violence.  Suddenly the intensity drops away, and a long solo for English horn laments what has just passed.  Cary Ebli did very fine work here, a section on which the whole work pivots.

The second and third movements are a mad, heavy-footed dance followed by a mock military parade complete with references to Georgian music and, by implication, Stalin himself.  Next, a passacaglia of mourning, an approach Shostakovich would use again in the 11th symphony.  The finale tries to be optimistic, but the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a reprise of the first movement’s violence.  How much has really changed?  The work ends hauntingly with a quiet chord in the strings that emerge into the light of a major key only at the last moment.

A great work played brilliantly by the TSO with, clearly, superb preparation and direction by Maestro Sanderling.

One performance left on Thursday evening, March 23.  Go!