WASHINGTON, May 3, 2013 – The National Symphony Orchestra wraps up this week’s concert program tonight at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with a reprise of Thursday evening’s program, featuring young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein as soloist in Elgar’s elegiac and occasionally eccentric Cello Concerto in E-minor, Op. 85. Under the baton of music director Christoph Eschenbach, this unusual program concludes with something entirely different, a performance of the rowdy, popular, yet also enigmatic Shostakovich Fifth Symphony.
From the year of its debut in 1919, the Elgar Cello Concerto has had both its fans and its detractors. It was the aging, late Romantic composer’s last completed large-scale composition, and as such, was sniffed at by the growing cadre of younger modernists and serialists who regarded Elgar as something of a musical fossil. It’s also at times a baffling work, alternating reflective, deeply felt, almost funereal sentiments with moments of manic energy, particularly in its second movement.
Put in perspective, one could justifiably regard the Elgar concerto as the composer’s sorrowful yet contemplative reaction to the horrendous bloodbath of the recently concluded First World War. Whatever its merits, the world and the England the composer had inhabited for his entire life had vanished, forever, and almost overnight, leaving Elgar to mourn the past and perhaps fear the future, slowly lowering the curtain on his compositional output even though he was to live until 1934.
We often read that such elegiac works are typical of an aging composer who reflects back on past triumphs and failures, finding mostly failure and disappointment in his musical reveries. But if that’s universally so, however, how does one account for the rich, rollicking hilarity of Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, which premiered in 1893—the composer’s 80th year? Older composers react differently to the past as they recollect it. Verdi, for all his seriousness, was still able to make fun of life’s utter nonsense in Falstaff. On the other hand, Elgar—reflecting on the unprecedented carnage that marked the ending of a way of life, came to an understandably different point of view more in line with “conventional” reasoning.
In any event, Elgar bequeathed us, as his final major offering, a rich, meandering, sometimes frustrating cello concerto that’s as much an extended funeral march as it is a flickering of hope for better times and, ultimately, new triumphs for the human spirit.
Given that this substantial four-movement concerto navigates so many conflicting threads, it’s largely up to the cello soloist to lead us through the wandering forest path. Some have done this marvelously well, while others have been less successful.
We’ve only heard this concerto live twice as we recall, the first and most astonishing performance being that of the legendary English cellist Jacqueline du Pré back in the 1960s before her tragic diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, the disease that quickly ended her promising young career and ultimately her life. Ms. du Pré was an astonishing life force, a big-boned, stunningly beautiful blonde Valkyrie who cradled and literally enveloped her instrument with a love and a passion that remains legendary in the memories of all who were fortunate to hear her play.
The problem is, musical legends, like old fishing tales, tend to grow and flower in memory as time marches on and on sometimes supplanting objective reality. While the late Jacqueline du Pré’s artistry (still available via many still popular recordings) remains unparalleled and unquestionable, other legends inhabit the cello universe as well, including another legendary performer, Russian cellist and former NSO music director Mstislav Rostropovich who greatly respected the brilliance of his younger British colleague.
Which gets us back to Thursday’s performance of the Elgar by young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Only 30 years of age—roughly the same age as Ms. du Pré before her forced retirement—Ms. Weilerstein launched her professional solo career with the Cleveland Orchestra at the age of 13. Slowly and steadily, she’s built her career over the years, evolving from a child prodigy, to an important young cellist whose appearances are now in great demand.
Significantly, her skill in performing the Elgar was noticed by du Pré’s oft-maligned former husband, the highly respected concert pianist-turned major conductor Daniel Barenboim. He invited Ms. Weilerstein to perform the concerto with him and the Berlin Philharmonic. The pair later recorded the concerto on the Decca label.
While Ms. du Pré, even in her youth, whose rambunctious, passionate, highly personal style of playing hearkened back to the somewhat earlier days of the old, barnstorming Romantic piano and stringed-instrument soloists, Ms. Weilerstein is, understandably, a musician of her own times, an era in which technical perfection and an almost steely, classical precision are deemed more important than such skills were roughly fifty years ago.
For that reason, Ms. Weilerstein’s approach to the concerto at times seemed somewhat academic Thursday evening when compared to our perhaps impaired remembrance of Ms. du Pré’s interpretation. This is less a criticism than it is a “compare and contrast.”
Ms. du Pré’s dramatic, highly personalized approach, while brilliant and memorable, at times forced the focus on the performer, not the music. In the main, Ms. Weilerstein’s approach was far less distracting—certain mannerisms aside—allowing listeners to focus on the inner workings and complexities of Elgar’s score. In recollected performance, the legend of Jacqueline du Pré filled the room back in the 1960s. Ms. Weilerstein’s approach, along with the stable, sympathetic, and finely calibrated accompaniment of the NSO under Mr. Eschenbach, allowed Sir Edward’s music itself to dominate the hall.
Ms. Weilerstein’s technical skills are considerable, as she demonstrated amply in the second movement’s insanely difficult and rapid passages and again in the wider challenges of the finale. Yet she also proved capable of mastering the more personal and emotional elements of this concerto’s more reflective first and third movements.
If we had any difficulty with her performance at all, it was in a tendency, at times, to inhabit another plane from the orchestra. For a few measures here and there, she seemed to detach from the moorings Mr. Eschenbach attempted to provide. Fortunately, it was at these times that he was able to quietly and efficiently bring all his forces, including the cellist, back into proper orbit.
Thursday’s nicely balanced concert concluded its second half with Shostakovich’s enduringly popular Symphony No. 5 in D-minor, Op. 47. While as serious in its own way as Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the Shostakovich’s equally somber mood is increasingly shot through with clever tunes and calculated quasi-military bombast that overwhelm such moments with orchestral chaos.
The problem here is that almost any popular symphony, like this one, that smacks of Romantic influence attracts arrows from certain academic quarters, which tend to regard anything the general public loves (like all of Rachmaninoff) as tinsel and trash that ought to be dropped from the repertoire.
Worse for the Shostakovich Fifth, other critics have regarded it as a sop to the Communist Party’s brutish censors—including Stalin himself—who typically took a wrecking ball to the output of any composer who dared to experiment with modernism as opposed to cranking out folksy classical pap that propagandized in favor of Stalin’s socialist worker’s paradise. We wonder how quickly such critics would fold under similar pressures, but this is never part of the discussion it seems.
Factually speaking, the Fifth Symphony is a brilliant answer to Stalinist excess. Largely Romantic on the outside, its supposedly obsequious structures and patriotic excitement actually have little musical IEDs buried within. Nearly anyone who enjoys much of the standard classical music repertoire can easily discover nasty little satirical bits of Weill and Mahler (and the brassy Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony) buried not-too-deeply within the carnival-like fabric of this symphony’s second movement or in its faux-triumphant finale.
These funny, acidic passages are the way Shostakovich quietly gives the raspberries to the censors, most of whom he likely realized were actually too stupid to notice what was going on. Funnier still, the second movement seems also to draw lightly on a clever technique employed by Robert Schumann in his “Marche des ‘Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins” that concludes his solo piano composition Carnaval. Schumann’s “march” is actually in ¾ time, the tempo of a waltz. It’s actually quite nonsensical.
Yet the bluster of Schumann’s music momentarily makes you think it’s a march before you understand the joke. One could make the argument that Shostakovich is performing much the same trick here, satirizing the military acumen of Stalin and his cadre of frightened yes men. (And if so, Shostakovich was surprisingly prescient.) But if you don’t like that spin, think of the many mocking klezmer-oompah band passages that punctuate Mahler’s symphonies, sometimes at the oddest times. That will work, too.
In short, we don’t agree with those who still want to pick a fight with Shostakovich’s Fifth. Like their equally persecuted fellow composer, Serge Prokofiev, whose response to Stalinist thuggery wasn’t always above approach, Shostakovich and other composers in the Soviet Union at the time, did what they had to in order to survive, and much of this repressed output manages to rise above the ordinary nonetheless.
Given the built-in disputes, both musical and political, that are embedded into Shostakovich’s score for the Fifth, it’s remarkable that he was able to compose a coherent crazy-quilt symphony that manages both to entertain and to challenge at the same time. It’s robust Russian Romanticism but with an insistent suggestion that genuinely revolutionary elements are hiding inside if you dare to turn the key.
Happily, Maestro Eschenbach and the NSO happened to come into possession of that key Thursday evening, presenting a powerful, unified, multi-layered approach to this work that transformed it from being a popular though standard chestnut into the powerful political-musical debate that it really is. The orchestra has scarcely sounded better, going “all-in” on this one with solo and ensemble voices in playoff season mode, if you will.
The symphony’s numerous small solo bits were bright and brilliant, including the occasional disrespectful utterances of the contra-bassoon (actually, the more controllable contra-forte in this orchestra). Meanwhile, the symphony’s showy brass passages in the first movement and more particularly in battleground of the finale put the spotlight firmly on that constantly improving section.
The finale itself was a marvelous exercise in barely controlled restraint, as Mr. Eschenbach and the NSO built to an irresistible climax brought to an exciting close, punctuated by wonderfully brutal wallops on the bass drum and tympani. The audience loved the excess, and so did this critic.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars out of four)
This concert program repeats tonight at the Kennedy Center at 8 p.m. in the Concert Hall. For tickets ($10-$85) visit the NSO website here.
NOTE: Washington National Opera’s production of Showboat opens tonight at 7 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Opera House. If you’re attending either the NSO or the WNO performance this evening, allow some extra time to find parking.
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