A night for Shostakovich fans – a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

November 14, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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A whole program of Shostakovich was something of a gamble for the SSO concert last night, because not everybody likes his music. Luckily, I’m one who does, although my love blossomed only after many hearings.

Vladamir Ashkenazy conducts  Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy, obviously loves his countryman’s music too, because his two most recent SSO programs have been undiluted Shostakovich.

Ashkenazy not only knew the composer but was at the premier of the first violin concerto in Moscow in 1955. He had this to say about Shostakovich:

“If you could describe Shostakovich’s attitude and what he tried to express in his music, it’s simply the tragedy of an individual in impossible circumstances. But we knew what he wanted to say because we felt the same that he did, and we somehow deciphered it emotionally and spiritually…And he said it so eloquently. We were looking into a mirror of our existence. That’s what it was like. It’s reality. But reality can be expressed only by a genius, in musical terms.”

 Is there any doubt that this conductor was ideally positioned to interpret Shostakovich?

Last night’s SSO concert comprised Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Passacaglia, Violin Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 5. There is more Shostakovich on tap later in the week.

Although the Lady Macbeth passacaglia is relatively brief, it begins with a feeling of “oh my God, what tragedy is about to befall us?” as does the fifth symphony. It could be looked upon as a curtain raiser – or maybe a hell raiser.

Dmitri Shostakovich

The Lady Macbeth opera enjoyed widespread popularity with everybody except Stalin who, at his first hearing, scuttled away at interval and hosed down the rampaging enthusiasm to such an extent that Shostakovich feared he would be arrested. The opera ceased being performed, while under the same cloud, he withdrew his fourth symphony.

The passacaglia, which was written to be played between the second and third acts, packs a wallop. It begins with anguish and tragedy and builds from there into a terrifying cacophony until, like air leaking from a balloon it falters, calms and finishes in a whisper. It foreshadowed the obvious enthusiasm the SSO has in playing Shostakovich and the simpatico Ashkenazy has in conducting it

Ray Chen

Following Lady Macbeth was the first violin concerto with soloist 28-year-old Ray Chen, born in Taiwan but educated in Queensland. He is on the way to acquiring similar superstar status as a violinist that Lang Lang has as a pianist. And like Lang Lang, he’s more than a pretty face that vacuums in the media. As well as winning both the Yehudi Menuhin and Queen Elizabeth music competitions, Chen is among the new crop of high achieving classical musicians who interact with their fan base via social media, projecting their personalities both on and off the concert platform. And, of course, he plays a Strad, in this case a 1715 once owned by the legendary Joseph Joachim.

His performance of the Shostakovich concerto was simply electrifying. The cadenza, which finishes the third movement, is one of the great challenges for a violinist, and Chen dispatched it with surges of passionate perfection, detached horsehair flying from the end of his bow.

While the violin concerto was worthy of main event status, it was the fifth symphony that took pride of place after intermission. Here was a work of towering stature, still deeply moving audiences as it had at its premier in 1937 – although those in the Sydney Opera House didn’t go quite as wild as they had in Leningrad at its premier when they rampaged through the streets yelling its praises.  That said, the applause was quite overwhelming – for Shostakovich, for Ashkenazy and for an orchestra that had not just met a mighty challenge, but revelled in it.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Shostakovich’s fifth symphony was intended to get the composer back into the communist government’s good books after he’d upset Stalin with the Lady Macbeth opera. Thus, it is in conventional four movements form, employing a huge orchestra that included two harps, piano, double percussion, celesta, and a bull fiddle count of eight. The symphony utilises all the gathered forces while, at the same time, offering cameo solos for violin, flute, oboe and bassoon – among others.

The SSO was at the top of its game, no doubt responding to a familiar and much-loved conductor who is very much at home with 19th and 20th century Russian music. My favourite movement was the third, largo, which reduced the premiere audience to tears and I can understand why. And who will forget the concluding blows from the tympani? – which Ashkenazy is on record as saying are symbolic of Shostakovich thumping himself on the head in despair for the world as he saw it at the time.


SSO Opera House concert 13 October 2017

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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