Shostakovich's subversive subtexts laid bare

Conductor Semyon Bychkov leads the Philadelphia Orchestra. All sections played brilliantly Thursday, especially English hornist Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia. Another performance is Saturday.
Conductor Semyon Bychkov leads the Philadelphia Orchestra. All sections played brilliantly Thursday, especially English hornist Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia. Another performance is Saturday. (The Philadelphia Orchestra)
Posted: October 13, 2013

World War II might've been reenacted on the Verizon Hall stage, to judge from the musical artillery assembled Thursday for Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11, not one of the composer's better pieces, but one that's as exciting as any and covertly disturbing with performers willing to meet it more than halfway.

The program's safety net was Yefim Bronfman playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. But with a guest conductor such as Semyon Bychkov (and the orchestra having had six previous encounters with the piece) no such thing was needed.

Subtitled The Year 1905, ostensibly to commemorate the Russian revolution, the symphony had a somewhat Germanic approach: Rather than just making a mighty Russian noise, Bychkov clearly laid bare the music's subversive subtexts.

It's widely thought Shostakovich was really thinking about the 1956 Hungarian uprising in this piece - in what is often called a film score without a film. The graphically descriptive music lacks the tight organization of his better-known symphonies, behaving like four tone poems that alternately depict the lonely quiet before an inevitable onslaught, the onslaught itself, and then, in one of the more effective moments, an English horn solo that poetically surveys the scorched earth. With a large orchestra further augmented by much percussion, earth-scorching came in many forms.

Under Bychkov, even the most raucous musical events were meticulously delineated, inflected with great specificity about what the music might mean, but also with a particular ear for strangeness. The composer's characteristic gestures came out twisted, contorted, turned upside down, and played backward.

Such was the freedom Shostakovich could exercise when faking his role of a good Communist and not needing (on this occasion) to be a great symphonist. All sections of the Philadelphia Orchestra played brilliantly and meaningfully, especially English hornist Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia.

Sorry to give the concerto short shrift, especially as pianist Bronfman was reaching beyond the big-fisted repertoire with which he's most associated. His innate technical precision served him well for the filigree lines of Beethoven's most introspective, poetic concerto, seconded by Bychkov's collaborative sense of creating an integrated view of the concerto, even amid the second-movement confrontation between orchestra and soloist.

Bronfman's smooth veneer wasn't entirely a plus here. In terms of penetrating the piece, he seemed to go only halfway, and less than that in the first-movement cadenza. But in a concerto like this, halfway is still a fair distance.


Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

dstearns@phillynews.com.

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