Daring A Double Dip Of Shostakovich

Posted: May 06, 2000

With the works of Dmitri Shostakovich making serious inroads into the standard repertoire of late, Wolfgang Sawallisch posed an inevitable question: Can Philadelphia Orchestra audiences take two of the brooding Russian master's weightiest works on one program?

Besides the temperamental and formal similarities of the Symphony No. 5 and Violin Concerto No. 1 (depressive slow movements and manic dance movements), there's the considerable matter of whether listeners can stand the intensity of such musical bitterness. Is there enough Saint-John's-wort in the city to keep us all from diving off the Benjamin Franklin Bridge?

Nothing tragic or conclusive happened in the wake of Thursday's program at the Academy of Music because the two works had such different performances, one searing, one far less so.

If the idea was to dodge the full impact of the violin concerto, Viktoria Mullova was the perfect choice: The emotional detachment of her hot-fingered playing reduced the concerto to an exercise in technical athleticism. But even as "sport" playing, the performance's colorless tone and inelastic phrasing made it difficult to care about what she was doing. Frankly, I've never understood that career.

Sawallisch's response - wherever his sympathies lay in the situation - was graciously supportive as he unassumingly worked considerable wizardry in the counterpoint of the orchestral texture, clearly charting the music's thematic transformations.

With all of the talk of the music's subtextual layers that could be pro-Stalin on the surface and anti-Stalin every place else, it's good to be reminded that Shostakovich's best pieces (and this is one) hold up fine when considered only for their musical architecture.

In the Fifth Symphony, however, Sawallisch balanced formal awareness with knowledge of the piece's political subtext in mutually illuminating measure. I've heard and enjoyed many edgy performances of the piece by Russians, Poles, Czechs and New Yorkers, but none gave such a complete and emotionally penetrating view as this. With his keen sense of order, Sawallisch built each movement's tension, layer by contrapuntal layer, with a sense of implacable inevitability that's key in a piece that was written both as a capitulation to and protest against Soviet repression.

The second movement, which can seem uncomfortably close to Mahler, was given a distinctive, deliberate tempo that rendered its dancelike elements more intentionally grotesque than usual. Its gracelike notes were treated with such an eloquent lack of grace that one thinks of petty bureaucrats dancing with no idea how ridiculous they look.

The intentionally bombastic finale - in which Shostakovich practices ironic subterfuge of the highest order - has rarely been so exhilarating and horrifying at the same time. Shostakovich makes the banality of evil sensuous, letting you bask in it before reminding you how appalling it all is.

The orchestra members played like gods in what was one of those great nights at the symphony. How fortunate that this piece is going on the European tour. How unfortunate that it's not being recorded. I'd buy it in a minute.

David Patrick Stearns' e-mail address is dstearns@phillynews.com

THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 (with Viktoria Mullova, violin) and Symphony No. 5

at 8p.m. Tuesday at the Academy of Music, Broad

and Locust Streets.

Tickets are $5 to $90. Information: 215-893-1999.

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