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Wednesday, 02 April 2014 20:32

Symphony Preview: Heart of Darkness + Video

Christian Tetzlaff Christian Tetzlaff christiantetzlaff.com / Giorgia Bertazzi
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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This weekend's St. Louis symphony concerts feature (to borrow a phrase from the baseball diamond) a pair of heavy hitters—on both the stage and the page.

Shostakovich in 1945

On stage we have the dynamic duo of violinist Christian Tetzlaff and SLSO music director David Robertson. Mr. Robertson, of course, needs no introduction—and neither, for most audience members, should Mr. Tetzlaff. An artist with an international reputation performing a wide range of music from Bach to contemporary world premieres and the founder of a string quartet that bears his name, Mr. Tetzlaff gave us an impressive Sibelius "Violin Concerto" in January of 2012 (with Mr. Robertson on the podium) that combined technical facility with musical sensibility.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is also one of this weekend's two heavy hitter composers; the other is Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975). From the latter we're getting the dark and demon-haunted "Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor," Op 77, while the former gives us his dramatic "Symphony No. 2 in D major," Op. 43.

That's the whole program. There's no short overture or other curtain raiser. Once the lights go down, you'll be plunged straight into the Shostakovich.

Although completed in 1948, the Shostakovich concerto was not performed until 1955 – two years after the death of Stalin and the subsequent easing of restrictions on composers who (like the residents of Monty Python's "Happy Valley" ) risked arrest for not being sufficiently cheerful. And cheerful is a word which nobody is his or her right mind would apply to this work. Yes, the finale is typically lively and boisterous, but it comes after a dark and tragically brooding first movement, a demonically grinning second that could have been penned by The Joker (Batman's, not Steve Miller's), a Passacaglia (based, in part, on the "fate" motive of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony") that sounds like something Bach might have produced had he lived through the horrors of World War II in Russia, and a highly dramatic virtuoso cadenza that's almost a tone poem unto itself.

 

Sibelius in 1913

Taken as a whole, the concerto is a work of tragic grandeur, which may be why David Oistrakh (for whom the work was written and who assisted in its revision) referred to the solo violin part as a "pithy 'Shakespearean' role". Certainly the cadenza that links the third and fourth movements is as technically challenging as any of The Bard's soliloquies, with a dynamic and emotional range that compels complete attention. We got that and more when Simone Lamsma performed the concerto with Jaap van Zweden on the podium two years ago, so it will be interesting to see what the Tetzlaff/Robertson combo does with it this time around.

As with the Shostakovich concerto, there's darkness in the Sibelius "Symphony No. 2," but it's an entirely different kind. It's the darkness of the majestic, windswept Finnish landscape that rarely sees the sun for months on end. It's the kind of darkness you might appreciate from inside a cozy cabin. Like, say, the all-wood home (Sibelius didn't want to hear the sound of rain in metal gutters) on Lake Tuusula in the Finnish forest where the composer lived and worked from 1982 until his death. It's a natural and benign darkness, as opposed to the malevolent spiritual darkness of the Soviet police state that oppressed Shostakovich. It's dramatic, uplifting, and conjures up potent images of the natural world that so inspired Sibelius.

 

Ainola, the house of Sibelius and his wife Aino
finland.fi

Sibelius started this symphony in Italy in 1902, but he completed it in Finland in 1902. It's impossible to hear this music and not conjure up images of pines, snow, and brisk northern winds—especially in that final movement. Paul Schiavo, in his program notes, accurately describes it as "one of the most exultant finales in the symphonic literature."

The essentials: David Robertson conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and violinist Christian Tetzlaff in Shostakovich's "Violin Concerto No. 1" and Sibelius's "Symphony No. 2" on Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, April 5 and 6, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: stlsymphony.org. The Saturday performance will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via live Internet stream.

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