Petrenko’s convincing rehabilitation of two great Russian works

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko with Michael Houstoun (piano)

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 4 and Shostakovich: Symphony No 7 ‘Leningrad’

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 5 August, 6.30pm

There was a near-full house for this concert that featured a conductor who’s achieved much real distinction, a relatively unfamiliar concerto by a well-loved composer and a symphony that had won fame even before it was first performed.

Petrenko and the young conductors
Vasily Petrenko follows in the footsteps of several young conductors who have been given the direction of orchestras that were not at that point, particularly renowned. He took charge of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2007 aged 31, rather as Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1978, at 26, or Simon Rattle who took over the City of Birmingham Symphony in 1980 at 25.

Our own Pietari Inkinen took over the NZSO at the age of 27 in 2007, and he has made it a highly polished ensemble capable of responding to another young conductor like Petrenko, not only with finesse and refinement, but also with huge energy.

There is irony in the widespread feeling that not enough young people are coming to concerts, while orchestral players and soloists as well conductors seem to be getting ever younger. (*See below for more on young conductors)

It goes without saying that the demographic of pianists and violinists is, and always has been, very young, given the world’s propensity for wonder at spectacular performance by highly gifted Wunderkinder who have to make it by 20 if they are to make the grade at all.

That brings us to Michael Houstoun who was of course one of them, winning prizes in the Van Cliburn and Leeds competitions at about that age.

Rachmaninov’s Fourth
Rachmaninov’s last piano concerto is considered the hardest of the four to bring off, for the whole score presents problems on account of orchestral writing that is often rather dense, many-layered and so profoundly integrated with the piano.

Petrenko led the orchestra by encouraging the feverish series of rising brass-led chords, that promises both grandeur and emotional depths. Perhaps I was initially worried at Houstoun’s ability to assert the piano’s role in the face of the orchestra’s authority; but he quickly established and maintained a steady pace and authority of his own that was never splashy or egotistical and he quite matched the orchestra at telling moments with powerful and reciprocating statements and elaborations,

The common criticism of denseness really relates to very few moments, and they are no more conspicuous than in most concertos. More to the point was the poetry and glittering bursts of bravura scales and ornate arpeggios that Houstoun enriched his performance with: occasionally purely decorative, but generally with an eye steadily on the organic purpose.

The new element in Rachmaninov’s writing that everyone notes is his digestion of the influence of Gershwin and the jazz that he was hearing in America at the time, and its harmonies do at times suggest the indeterminate blues sounds that sometimes render big-band jazz sounds murky and rootless. These are only moments for Rachmaninov and he maintains attention through rising and falling dynamics and emotional intensity.

As for the riot of colour and speed of the piano, Houstoun’s playing, clean and finely focused, kept it taut and relevant.

The concerto’s problem, its lesser popularity, is due quite simply to the shortage of rapturous and memorable melody such as guarantees the hold of the second and third concertos; and that in spite of the pretty little tune in the slow movement that echoes a popular music-hall song published in the 1880s. ‘Two lovely black eyes’ which was a parody of ‘My Nellie’s blue eyes’. I have never read speculation as to how this came to be planted in Rachmaninov’s subconscious.

But perhaps it was this that prompted a contemporary critic, after the premiere in 1927, to write of the work: “…now weepily sentimental, now of an elfin prettiness, now swelling toward bombast in a fluent orotundity. It is neither futuristic music nor music of the future. Its past was a present in Continental capitals half a century ago. Taken by and large—and it is even longer than it is large—this work could fittingly be described as super-salon music. Mme Cécile Chaminade might safely have perpetrated it on her third glass of vodka.”

Whatever the connection of that tune, it does seem to be resistant to much interesting development; the music does rather fail to develop, apart from the unexpected, threatening episode about four minutes into it.

There are areas of the Michael Fowler Centre where the sound is not clearly represented or becomes muddied or unbalanced as between certain instrumental sections. I was in one of them, near centre stalls, and while my ears allowed me to hear the energy and the emotional force of the performance, the louder passages were too dense and sounded more muddied than I’m sure was experienced elsewhere. It left me, nevertheless,  in no doubt that the fourth is a much finer composition than its current popularity would suggest.

The truth about the Seventh
While the concerto was a big enough draw-card for a full house (which we had) the famous symphony was probably an even greater attraction. It is still rather belittled by the more severe critics and those who tend automatically to denigrate 20th century music with tunes, so running the risk of popularity. But now the seventh’s remarkable origins and its hundreds of performances during the war has been endorsed by the revival of interest in the past three decades (a seminal recording was Haitink’s with the LPO in 1980). Friday’s performance inspired me to dust off others on record, only to have the unsurprising result of persuading me that the years of ignore were driven not by sensitive musical ears but by dogma, pedantry and, especially among the musical critical fraternity, scorn for music containing tunes that made a big impact on thousands of people: that just had to be proof of vacuity and worthlessness.

Ian MacDonald (The New Shostakovich) puts the stimulus for its revival down to the publication of Volkov’s Testimony in 1979, where Shostakovich is quoted as saying the symphony was “not about Leningrad under siege; it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off”. Such revelations were widely resisted when Testimony was first published and Volkov was dismissed as a plagiarist who’d made it all up. But later events conspired to validate Volkov’s memoir.

Volkov notes that the Seventh had been planned before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and could thus have nothing to do with the Nazi invasion; that the ‘Invasion’ theme had nothing to do with the attack; “it had to do with other enemies of humanity … not only German Fascism … Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin”, Volkov quotes Shostakovich saying.

It was this symphony in which Shostakovich found his true voice after the terrible years of repression in the late 30s. The war, engendering a sense of patriotism and shared perils, brought a halt to Stalin’s murders and removed the danger of writing music that came from the heart and allowed the composer to express something of the plight of the Soviet people faced with Stalinist terror, which could be now be disguised as something else.

That is the way the performance of the central part of the first movement unfolded, with its mighty outburst of determination to confront evil. Yet the ambiguity threads its way throughout the movement; nothing could be as heart-easing, superficially at least, as the peaceful tune towards the end, but it’s quietly overtaken by the recurrence of the ominous earlier tones; MacDonald describes “a strange glassy smile and the banality of the things it says”.

Nevertheless, the latter account leaves a question-mark over the significance of the trite little ‘Invasion theme’, echoing The Merry Widow aria, ‘Da geh ich zu Maxim’. MacDonald notes however that a version of the tune also existed in Russia, and was jokingly sung in the Shostakovich household to the composer’s son, whose name, of course, was Maxim.

The message?
This performance perhaps risked obscuring the overall message of submission and despair through the sudden shifts between varied moods and styles, the oppressive opening fanfares, the simple tunes, the ambiguities that make credible either its Soviet interpretation or the post-Volkov understanding.

Similar alternations of calm, perhaps self-deluding, and unease, fear, evil, permeate the other three movements and conductor and orchestra drove their way through its epic portrayals with tireless determination.

At the end, applause was prolonged and a (for Wellington) rare standing ovation revealed the extent of the work’s power to move a generation in which only the oldest (myself included) have clear memories of the course of the war, particularly on the eastern front, by far the most important in scale and in human and material destruction.

As an eight-year-old in the worst war years, I remember studying with intense interest the map of Europe on my grandfather’s wall, on which he shifted scores of pins day by day, following the progress of the allied armies that were closing in on Nazi Germany from all sides; his then commonly-held pro-communist feelings naturally left a deep impression on me, not really dispelled till the revelations after the death of Stalin in my first year at university. So this great performance did much more than tell the tale of a remote bit of history that I was, even at the time, very alert to: a great musical composition by a composer alert to international political realities, as virtually none had been before, had arrived. He was spurred by a regime that sought to control the political colour of its arts; ironically, the political awareness it stimulated was very different from what the Party intended.

This was a great concert that presented us with the most convincing performances of two masterpieces that have for different reasons been looked at askance by critics, or the public, or both, for many decades. Both works are surely fully rehabilitated now.

*Other conductors who made waves in their early years include Claudio Abbado at La Scala aged 35, Barenboim the Orchestre de Paris at 33, Seiji Ozawa at San Francisco aged 33, Bernstein debuted with the New York Philharmonic at 25 and became music director of the Toscanini-founded orchestra, the New York City Symphony aged 27, Gergiev was a mature 35 when he took over at the Maryinski Theatre in (then) Leningrad; the young Latvian Mariss Jansons began his triumphant years with the Oslo Philharmonic in 1979 aged 36; while his compatriot Andris Nelsons took over the Birmingham orchestra in 2008 when he was 29.

A recent issue of Gramophone celebrated 10 of a new generation of rising stars (not counting Dudamel who, at 30, is regarded as well-established now). One of them is Petrenko, while on the cover was Yannick Nézet-Séguin who conducted our National Youth Orchestra a few years ago. Interestingly, an accompanying article noted the continued absence of women conductors. It looks as if the advent of such fine conductors as Jane Glover, Simone Young, Marin Alsop, Julia Jones, Xian Zhang, JoAnn Falletta, Odaline de la Martinez (not forgetting Herbertina von Karajan or Georgina Solti) has not really created a well-marked career path for women.

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