Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra: A Welcome Invitation

Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Conductor
October 7, 2013
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
8:00 pm

The Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra knows how to fill a hall both with people and with sound. Although it boasts a long history, during Monday night’s performance all one could think about were the precious moments at hand. Guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn held the podium like a controlled tempest, injecting just the sort of energy expected of the all-Russian program. The palette at his disposal was accordingly rich with contrast. Smooth yet sometimes-rustic strings meshed with a superb wind section (the true litmus test of any such orchestra), while clarion brass mediated between the two with equal shares of rough and smooth.

Indeed, brass was foremost on the menu in the appetizer: Night on Bald Mountain. Modest Mussorgsky’s 1867 symphonic poem, the first of two in the concert’s first half, was originally titled St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain and intended to evoke a gathering of witches on that same pagan holiday. Performed in full only posthumously, it was a relative outlier on the concert stage until it famously appeared in Disney’s Fantasia during the penultimate scene of unrequited souls. Such associations remain glued to the piece’s architecture and only served to heighten the opportunity to experience it in person, allowing concertgoers to indulge in their own associations. Its spiraling brilliance and instantly recognizable theme shook Bailey Hall to its core with all the threat of the tornado watch that had been hovering over Ithaca that same afternoon. It was tempting to hold fast to the piece’s backstory, but as the music went on, its motifs growing more distorted with every iteration, it begged to be taken on its own terms.

The same could be said about the rendition of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. Penned in 1909, it was inspired by an engraved reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s eponymous 1886 painting. The result was a dreamlike concert experience. What became obvious hearing it live, and in such capable hands, was that Rachmaninoff had successfully added a Z-axis of time to the painting’s X and Y of image and atmosphere. The end effect was, despite the dynamic curve, quiet resignation. One must know unrest, it seemed to say, in order to seek rest eternal.

The concert’s pre-intermission programming could not have been accidental, for Rachmaninoff himself conducted the 1909 world premiere of Isle of the Dead in Moscow alongside his Second Symphony and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. More novel, perhaps, was pairing these with the Fifth Symphony (1937) of Dmitri Shostakovich. One can hardly walk through writings about Shostakovich without stepping in the oppressive regime under which he lived. To be sure, he completed his Fifth at the peak of Stalinist Terror, thereby marking his return to the concert hall after a period of creative lockdown (Stalin had denounced the composer as a kink in the machine of Soviet spirit). Musicologists continue to hone from these details a dual-edged sword: Was Shostakovich being patriotic or snide? Does the piece leave us with hope or cynicism?

Yet hearing it “cold,” as it were, one begins to appreciate the variety of signatures in the opening Moderato alone. From the call-and-response of its awakening to its massive punctuation marks toward closure, there was much to admire in being face to face with this symphony. The MTO heightened the Mahlerian qualities of the second movement, a caricature of waltzes boasting many thematic handoffs. The third movement—forever one of the deepest statements in all of 20th century music—was all the more a requiem. It spun a false security by means of string-heavy, cornucopian pathos and haunting tremolos before the concluding Allegro burst onto the scene like a frantic mother in search of a lost child. With sweeping panache and urgency, it brought about triumph with sarcastic grandeur.

Whatever anyone might think about the politics surrounding and embedded in Shostakovich’s score, the MTO reminded listeners that such music is ultimately about the tension of extremes. One must therefore take caution in folding so much moroseness into the batter of Russian music. Such a proposition, of course, softens when we learn that even Igor Stravinsky called Rachmaninoff “six feet two inches of Russian gloom,” but anecdotal and circumstantial evidence do not a lasting message make. Lost in all of this is the music itself, sitting like Rodin’s thinker on an unwavering question: How long before a piece of music can be divorced from the context of its creation and take on a life of its own? Regardless of the answer, this performance was further proof that the power of orchestral music lies not in the strength of its ideological underpinnings, but in the immediacy of its invitation.

(See this article as it originally appeared in the Cornell Daily Sun.)

Shostakovich/Vasks/Schnittke: Dolorosa (ECM New Series 1620)


Dmitri Shostakovich
Alfred Schnittke
Peteris Vasks

Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Recorded June 1996, Mozart-Saal/Liederhalle, Stuttgart
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Orchestral transcription can be a contentious enterprise, obscuring as it enhances. Yet in rare cases its contours manage to take a shape all their own, living a new life somehow beyond the shadow of the original. Of this transformation we get two fine examples in Dolorosa, a well-conceived program from three distinct compositional minds.

The works are presented in chronological order, with a 1967 orchestration of Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 as a “Chamber Symphony” coming first. The arrangement, by conductor and violist Rudolf Barshai (the only one ever approved by the composer), is brilliant in that it avoids masking itself and features a flowing chain of solos. The swell of grief that besets the first movement now feels like a cinematic shift rather than climatic one and leaves a lethargic trace on the second movement. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies takes a conservative tempo on this often-cathartic passage, figuring it as a page manifesting its own ink rather than one furiously scrawled upon. The macabre minuet that follows in the third reaches new dynamic heights in the current version, and allows us perhaps above all to feel what the composer himself read into the energies breathing through it (though, as Richard Taruskin reminds us, the motivations for doing so were questionable, the result of a personal revisionism). The quartet as a whole is an intertextual treasure trove, comprised primarily of snippets of Shostakovich’s own works and those of Wagner and Tchaikovsky, in addition to revolutionary songs such as “Tormented by Grievous Bondage.” Whatever the reason for writing this supposedly autobiographical summary, we can hear in the final two Largos an underlying nonconformity threatening to overtake us with each turn of phrase. But all of it is just so beautiful that one finds it hard to unlock it as a political document.

Those Largos seem to whisper throughout Musica dolorosa. Penned in 1983 by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks in memory of his sister, it spins from indubitable threads a tapestry to be viewed, experienced, and understood. Though it manifests itself with Shostokovichian pathos, its structures feel relatively smooth to the touch. And when the quietude is at last overtaken by an outpouring of grief, pizzicato accents mark the tempo like an aural tic chipping away at a world that could dispense with life so readily. As the orchestra subsides, violas scrape the edges like tears. This piece does for grief what Erki Sven-Tüür’s Passion does for its eponym.

Alfred Schnittke’s String Trio brings the transcription instinct full circle. Arranged for orchestra in 1987 by Yuri Bashmet as Trio Sonata, it is both the longest piece on the album and the one in least need of commentary. Like Schnittke’s quartets, the trio opens itself up to moments of grandeur, but quickly undermines them with mournful denouements. Proof positive that, despite the expansion that an orchestral arrangement engenders, the music becomes no less introspective and no less intimate, and perhaps delves even deeper into the solitude of its creation.

Shostokovich noted that his eighth quartet, while openly bearing dedication to all victims of fascism, was in fact about himself, about the death of his ideological self after having undergone such intense social pressure to join the Communist party. Yet if we take a quiet walk between the lines of that history, we find a landscape populated with staves and notes like countless others before or since. Our assumptions about Shostakovich as the victim of a sensitive political milieu often color the ways in which we perceive his music, which is perhaps the point: to read is to experience. There is, however, a danger here. One the one hand, hardship in the lives of any of these composers, much less of any others, can hardly be denied. On the other, the music is its own space, which though its attempts to grapple with something in art that cannot be safely engaged in life breathes into our souls without mitigation. In the end, there only the beginning.