Monday, March 16, 2009

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra - Shchedrin, Prokofiev & Brahms - 03/15/09

Conductor: Mariss Jansons
Shchedrin: Beethoven's Heiligenstädter Testament
Prokofiev: Violin concerto No 1 in D Major, Op. 19 - Gil Shaham
Brahms: Symphony No 1, Op. 68

After hearing her effortlessly master the exacting Baroque music of Bach last month, I was very much looking forward to hearing Julia Fisher handle the very different challenge that is Prokofiev's decidedly unorthodox first violin concerto. Brahms' sumptuous Symphony No 1 as well as an unknown piece about Beethoven were also on the program, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra has enough of an excellent reputation to make the concert sound like a sure winner at no less of a venue than Carnegie Hall. Therefore, after the obligatory stop at Petrossian Bakery one block up for one of their to-die-for goodies, I was eagerly getting situated into my seat when I discovered that Ms. Fisher would not be performing due to an illness, but that Gil Shaham had very gentlemanly agreed to step in at the very last minute. My heart, which had dropped like a ton of bricks, came back up just as fast. Whew! Disaster avoided, and on with the show.

The first piece was quite a short and delightful surprise. Written last year by Moscow-born pianist and composer Rodion Shchedrin, it was inspired by Beethoven's Heiligenstädter Testament, a private document addressed to his brother in which he was expressing the torture that was his art, especially as he was becoming deaf. Its hair-raising opening notes and generally energetic tone were powerful evocations of the German composer's own thunderous music as well as the growing frustration and anger caused by his encroaching infirmity. It was also a good way for the orchestra to assert their uniformly brilliant sound while paying tribute to one of their fellow countrymen.
After witnessing Gil Shaham's virtuosic performance of Stravinsky's violin concerto a couple of weeks ago at the Kennedy Center, I figured that his tackling Prokofiev's wild ride would be yet another exciting adventure. Both only 22-minute long (Not that I'm clocking them or anything, but it says so in the program's notes) and both keeping the soloist fully engaged almost the whole time, they nevertheless present notable differences. For example, I've always thought that Prokofiev's concerto was more of a whizz kid's rebellious exercise compared to Stravinsky's more immediately attractive work. Its four-minute second movement stands out like a fast and furious wake-up call for attention while the first and third ones contain enough lyrical and melodic powers to be endlessly enchanting to the ears. The enfant terrible of 20th century Russia was having a hell of a creative year in 1917, and it shows. Not surprisingly, Gil Shaham's gave a technically agile and emotionally heart-felt performance, and enjoyed a strong but not overwhelming support from the perfectly oiled orchestra.
After Prokofiev's defiant unconventionality, Brahms' first symphony sounded even more sweepingly romantic. Nineteen years in the making, "Beethoven's 10th" is a finely crafted piece of work, from the swooning romantic élans of the beginning to the chorale-driven finale that bears more than a passing resemblance to Beethoven's Ode to Joy, but who's complaining? The light-heartiness of the two middle movements nicely counter-balance the rest of the score, and the whole symphony unfolds like a grand journey. Clearly dwelling deep into it, the orchestra rose as one under the direct but not overbearing baton of maestro Jansons and gave a majestically memorable performance.

And there was no stopping the party once these Bavarians got started! The first encore, Brahms' Hungarian Dance No 5, was ethereally delicate in the slow passages and anarchically energetic in the fast ones. The dynamite second encore, Josef's Strauss' polka Ohne Sorgen! ("Without Care"), exuded indeed unrestrained, carefree joie de vivre and was still resonating in our ears as we were slowly exiting the hall and going back to a cold and gray reality.

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