Prelude to a Revolution

Jesse Simon

martes, 2 de julio de 2019
Berlin, viernes, 21 de junio de 2019. Philharmonie. Scriabin: Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, op. 20. Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor, op. 103. Daniil Trifonov, piano. Berlin Philharmonic. Andris Nelsons, conductor

In one of his early guest appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, Andris Nelsons gave an unforgettable performance of Shostakovich’s Sixth in which the vastness of the opening found perfect balance in the playful fire of the final movements. Since then, his series of Shostakovich recordings for Deutsche Grammophon have earned uniformly positive reviews, but his concert appearances in Berlin have tended to focus more on Mahler and Bruckner (including a tremendous Mahler’s Second earlier this season). Yet for his most recent visit to Berlin – and the Philharmonic’s final concert of the regular season – Mr Nelsons made a long-awaited return to Shostakovich with a thrilling performance of the Eleventh that found a direct line to the symphony’s core of tension and terror.

The dark drama of Shostakovich, however, made an odd pairing with Scriabin’s defiantly sentimental Piano Concerto which opened the evening. Written less than a decade before the events of 1905 described in Shostakovich’s symphony, the concerto is easy to dismiss for its foolish romanticism; yet, as with so much of Scriabin’s output, it remains fascinating in its total conviction. While no one would accuse it of lacking in thematic and ornamental excess – it has passages that makes Tchaikovsky’s First concerto seem a model of classical restraint – it is curiously sparing in its use of orchestra. Much of the first two movements focus on the interplay of the piano and and a not especially large string section, and the resulting intimacy mitigates to some extent against the overheated excitement found in the symphonies. 

Nonetheless, Scriabin’s mixture of harmonic intelligence and arcane mysticism often expresses itself in music of disarming sentimentality, and neither Mr Nelsons nor pianist Daniil Trifonov made much of an attempt to downplay or ennoble this aspect of the concerto. Perhaps they realised that such an approach would be disingenuous. Instead of side-stepping the most nakedly romantic passages, they embraced them completely and, in doing so, forced the audience to look for something beyond the lush surfaces. It was a risky approach, but it worked. Even if one did not emerge convinced that the concerto was much of a masterpiece, it was difficult not to be impressed by Mr Trifonov’s intensity and Mr Nelsons’ control.

The excesses of the first movement were tempered by Mr Trifonov’s muscular playing, which found an attractively rich tone in the concentrated mid-range passages. He remained close to the strings, sometimes following their melodic lead, other times rising gently above for carefully wrought flights of pianistic texture. The division between soloist and orchestra was slightly more pronounced in the second movement variations, where Mr Trifonov’s rapid alternation between joyous gusto and delicate filigree seemed to dictate the pace and mood. The final movement was perhaps the most striking. Mr Trifonov wrested sentimental passages from the keyboard with decisive force and Mr Nelsons’ sudden marshalling of the orchestra’s full power mid-way through the movement achieved a startling emotional power through sound alone.

Yet Scriabin’s stabs at profundity seemed ridiculously tame when set against the evening’s second half. Of Shostakovich’s final five symphonies, the Eleventh has always seemed the least suited to home listening. There are, of course, numerous excellent recordings, but where 12 and 15 have a more compact dramatic arc, and 13 and 14 benefit from the guiding presence of the human voice, the power of the Eleventh comes less from its sudden eruptions of violence than its methodical building of tension. While it is perhaps the most epic in scope it is also the most subtle in character, and its long quiet passages demand the rapt attention and acoustic detail that are all but impossible to find outside the concert hall. Although Mr Nelsons remained calm in appearance and restrained in gesture for the duration of the piece, what emerged was a highly-charged work of aural theatre, a kind of opera without sets or singers, but with all the cathartic power of a great tragedy.

Mr Nelsons kept the first movement at a simmer, allowing the magnificent strings to construct a landscape of ominous, alluring emptiness from which muted trumpets and impassioned flutes attempted to take flight. Instead of building toward the movement’s most obvious intrusions, Mr Nelsons luxuriated in the slow pace and near silences; it was an extended exercise in mood-setting that would not have worked nearly as well without his confidence in the score and presiding sense of calm. The amorphous haze of the first movement yielded to a more pronounced pulse in the second, but the deliberate pace made the first climax seem more epic than immediate. If rigour never quite gave way to abandon, the movement’s conclusion achieved a terrifying intensity: incisive snare hits kicked off a frantic passage in the basses that spread through the strings to the rest of the orchestra culminating in an intrusion of brutal rhythmic force where pageantry was replaced with savagery. When the quiet strings of the first movement made their sudden reappearance, the effect was breathtaking.

The extraordinary third movement returned to the patient slow-build of the first, bookended by sublime playing from the violas and basses, but very much dominated by the might of the timpani. The final movement wasn’t especially brisk, but remarkably agile and fearfully precise and in its rhythmic focus. The strings were unstoppable, the trombones were majestic and, even in the moments when all the percussionists were busy with snares and gongs and bells, the full orchestra retained a bracing clarity. When the reverberation of the final bell died away, the immediacy of Shostakovich’s revolutionary drama had effectively banished all memory of Scriabin’s mannered profundities.


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