Saturday, 16 February 2008 performance reviewed by Karl Henning
Sibelius, Violin Concerto in D Minor, Opus 47
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Opus 43
Vadim Repin, violin
The Boston Symphony Orchestra
Mark Elder, guest conductor
Similarly, when last the Sibelius Violin Concerto sounded in Symphony Hall, the concert was ably led by a guest conductor (on the earlier occasion, Paavo Berglund), and the pairing was the other huge Shostakovich symphony in the key of C Minor (the Eighth, Opus 65). And when last we heard Vadim Repin here, it was in an electrifying account of the Shostakovich A Minor concerto.
The simplest word for Repin’s relation to the violin, is mastery. He does not make a show of wrestling with the instrument, does not dissipate his energies in the trappings of display; but the sparks fly off the strings. His violin thrills even at a whisper, as in the dulcet entrance at the outset of the Sibelius concerto. And if coordinating the schedules of guest soloist, guest conductor and professional orchestra is a notorious squeeze on the clock, such that rehearsal minutes are precious and few, the surety of the transitions in the concerto, and the sympathy binding Repin, conductor Mark Elder and the orchestra, were all the more impressive. The last movement was an especial delight, Repin finding an appropriately Tchaikovskian balance of grace, and weighted propulsion in what is essentially a Polonaise-fantasy.
The Shostakovich Fourth Symphony, in all its magnificence and unwieldy defiance, is historically a compass with a broken needle: once it pointed to a bold path, which its composer was prevented from promptly or directly pursuing. The young composer was still basking in the well-earned international success of his opera, The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District when he began composing a symphony whose scale would exceed that of his first three symphonies combined; and before he completed work, an unsigned editorial in Pravda (implying endorsement by the very highest officials in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) had dragged his name so thoroughly in the mud, that Shostakovich must have despaired of ever cleansing himself from it.
The Lady Macbeth affair made it clear to Soviet composers that neither the acclaim of the public nor the respect and admiration of one’s professional colleagues meant anything, if the Kremlin were not pleased. And notwithstanding his artistic satisfaction with the piece; nor his pride that here he had written a monumental symphony vindicating the hopes which had attached to him since his First, which was his graduation piece from the Conservatory; Shostakovich came to the agonized decision that this massive Fourth Symphony, which ends with a preternatural whisper as an aftershock to the deafening peals of a massive brass section (four trumpets, eight horns, three trombones and two tubas), and whose third movement begins with the plaintive funeral march of a solo bassoon over a trudging tritone in the double-bass and timpani — such a piece was not music with which to curry official favor.
Shostakovich had finished the Fourth Symphony in April of 1936; and though Fritz Stiedry had tried fitfully to rehearse it with the Leningrad Philharmonic, the composer made the decision – a decision costly to himself, for it meant returning the 300 rubles advance paid to him, and his wife had just borne their first child, Galina, earlier that year – to withdraw the piece from its scheduled 11 December 1936 performance.
A year later, the emotionally charged success of the Fifth Symphony tentatively restored the composer to official favor. Remarked Shostakovich to conductor Boris Khaikin: “I finished the Fifth Symphony fortissimo and in the major. Everyone is saying that it’s an optimistic and life-affirming symphony. I wonder, what would they be saying if I had finished it pianissimo and in the minor.” It was not until a quarter of a century later, in 1961, that Kirill Kondrashin conducted the premiere of the Fourth Symphony, and Khaikin realized the import of the composer’s seemingly glib remark, long years before — for the Fourth Symphony does indeed end pianissimo and in the minor.