New Zealand Festival: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich
Shostakovich: Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op 47
Michael Fowler Centre
Thursday 13 March 12:30 pm
To programme some of the weightiest pieces of orchestral music at lunchtime might have seemed strange behaviour. Were the festival’s and the orchestra’s managements not alert to the usual view that noon-time music should be light and easy?
This last of the Five by Five symphonies played at lunchtime concerts by the NZSO attracted a smaller audience than the other two I heard; I think that might be because Shostakovich seems not yet to be, in New Zealand, a major figure in the classical music pantheon.
Yet the three concerts I attended and reports of the other two prove the great success of the venture.
There is still a tendency to hear this fifth symphony of Shostakovich as the work of a reformed Communist disciple, who really meant what he wrote to appease the authorities in his note accompanying the score, and to treat the evidence of his horror of the regime, revealed by Solomon Volkov and many others, as a bit dubious.
The music I heard, under the impassioned direction of Hamish McKeich, spoke, in the first three movements, of an unease, of watchfulness, of fear of the 4am knock on the door; those bassoons early in the first movement uttered an ominous, flat-footed, unadorned chill. The sound was brown as in fascist shirts. There was minimal vibrato, and that tight little three-note motif: what other than disquiet, the fear of political criticism, could that portend? Sure, there are moments of sunshine and peacefulness, with the piano episode, the horns and the trumpets, but then terror returns with the side drum and xylophone with their triplet quavers.
With the thudding of basses and cellos there is no change in the political mood in the Allegretto. And though outward gaiety might be suggested at moments, the livelier tempo still sounds to me, in the dark and powerful interpretation we heard under McKeich, as if even signs of happiness and lighthearted behaviour are under surveillance.
In the great, suspenseful, Largo third movement the air of watchfulness remains with the tremolo violins and the dramatic impact of the tight, shrill oboe; and later, screaming strings, and the slow, ringing single notes of the harp, so beautifully articulated yet so full of unease. Nevertheless, the final major chord seems to be the composer’s determination to find humanity in all this.
I was gripped by this great performance which allowed, I thought, no mistaking of Shostakovich’s situation in the midst of the purges that had begun by 1937; while struggling to express a forced gaiety that would deceive the musical commissars, the last movement was still a matter of peering into a bleak future.
Often, attempts to infuse music, or the arts generally, with an extraneous context fails to create a coherent work of art, as non-musical emotions take charge, overwhelming the aesthetic character and its ability to move the listener. Yet there are plenty of successful examples, from the very earliest times: religious music can be considered a major case in point. Religion presents few conflicts of course as the emotions engaged by religion and by the arts have some common ground. But battle scenes and deaths and all kinds of tragic human experiences have commonly been used as sources of musical inspiration; unless handled with genius, they can be a burden that wrecks the musical element.
This symphony is a case of a genius at work, as the emotions have been transmuted so successfully into a musical fabric, and the performance itself was driven with full awareness of and attention to the symphony’s powerful musical character.
Once again, this was a heroic and committed performance that demonstrated the strength and responsiveness of the orchestra to such dynamic and clear-sighted leadership.
Finally it needs to be noted that the five symphonies were conducted by former members, wind instrument players, of the NZSO who have achieved international reputations, and whose magnificent showings here prove their credentials in the mainstream repertoire.