Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Sibelius and Shostakovich at SF Symphony

The Latvian violinist Baiba Skride above played the famous Sibelius Violin Concerto last week with the San Francisco Symphony, and though there were exquisite moments in the quieter sections, the more vigorous passages tended to be recessive to the point of blandness.

The orchestra, on the other hand, under Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, gave a thrilling performance behind her that reminded one of how great the concerto can be. This was also the case with in the opening piece, Finlandia, Sibelius' patriotic 1900 hymn to independence from Russia which did not take place until 1917. It was an eccentric reading, free of the usual cliches, and thoroughly enjoyable.

After intermission, Vänskä led the orchestra in the 1925 Shostakovich First Symphony, which the composer wrote as a teenager in the Conservatory. The young musical genius threw everything but the kitchen sink into this piece, with jazzy piano solos, sections that were delicately scored for a chamber ensemble, and massive full-orchestra climaxes. None of the musical ideas seems to last more than a minute or two and the 30-minute symphony can sound either brilliant and/or a disjointed mess. I listened to about ten different versions on YouTube from Toscanini to Petrenko, and what was interesting was how wildly different they all were from each other. (My favorite was the WDR Sinfonieorchester being conducted by the late Rudolph Bashai, who I had never heard of before.) The performance by the SF Symphony was great, with Vänskä making the piece sound coherent without losing any of its wildness. It was wonderful hearing the music live.


Stephen Smoliar said...

Barshai was one of the great "triple threats" of the twentieth century. I remember dating a violist back in my undergraduate days, and she worshipped him like a god. He knew the Shostakovich string quartets so well that he arranged several of them as chamber symphonies. On a much larger scale, he also prepared a performing version of all five movements of Gustav Mahler's tenth symphony. Then, on top of everything else, he took up conducting. The Brilliant Classics Shostakovich box has him conducting WDR in all of the Shostakovich symphonies and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi in all of the chamber symphonies. ICA put out a twenty-CD Tribute box set that covers all three aspects of his career (meaning only samples of his Shostakovich work). It is one of my favorite collections!

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Stephen: Reading Barshai's bio online I was really surprised that I had never heard of him before, but stumbling across musical genius on YouTube is one of the compensating joys of our computer age.