Saturday, November 04, 2006

CONCERT REVIEW: 'Leningrad' full of power, stamina

'Leningrad' full of power, stamina
By Janelle Gelfand
Cincinnati Enquirer, November 4, 2006

In this centennial of Dmitri Shostakovich's birth, orchestras around the world are paying tribute to this important 20th-century Russian symphonist.

On Friday morning, Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra delivered a gripping survey of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad," a work of such epic and cinematic proportion, it's an endurance test for musicians and audience members alike. The massive orchestra - with nine horns, six trumpets, six trombones, expanded percussion and two harps - was a spectacle itself. But the sheer power of this shattering music in Music Hall's acoustic was an aural experience unlike any other, I would venture, in the country.

Järvi's 20th-century Russian program included guest violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky in a riveting account of another monument - Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2. The morning opened with Leonard Bernstein's tongue-in-cheek birthday salute to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich: "Slava! A Political Overture for Orchestra."

Shostakovich began his "Leningrad" symphony in 1941, composing in air raid shelters as his hometown was under siege by Nazi Germany. The work vividly evokes almost documentarylike depictions of the invading forces, pitted against nostalgic, more human moments that reflect on happier times.

Years later, the composer said the work depicts all tyranny, specifically, Stalin's reign of terror. Whichever the story, the symphony's power leaves an indelible image.

The first movement's march is the most graphic depiction of an invasion ever set to music. Järvi kept the tempo in check as the "invasion theme" built to a cataclysmic show from brass forces. It was a chilling moment that subsided into a mournful bassoon solo (William Winstead).

Each movement was a universe in itself, and the musicians played with precise attack, intensity and refined ensemble.

The second movement, a melancholy scherzo, showcased the winds, including a piercing tune for E-flat clarinet (Jonathan Gunn). There were moments of haunting beauty in the Adagio (third) movement, with its solitary flute solo (Randolph Bowman).

The finale was a searing drive to the finish, with violin bows flying, timpani pounding, the slapping of bass strings and brass bells lifted. Despite the immense scope, Järvi's intensity never flagged through moments that ranged from brutal to deeply interior.

In the first half, Sitkovetsky, who was born in Azerbaijan and raised in Moscow, brought a unique view to Prokofiev's G Minor Concerto. Although the concerto has thorny passages, it's easy to hear that the composer wrote it around the same time as his ballet, "Romeo and Juliet."

Sitkovetsky projected a big, clean sound that was not plush, but suited to the alternately haunting and spiky writing in this piece. Virtually never taking his eyes off Järvi, he pushed ahead, tackling nonstop technical feats with a cool, unruffled demeanor.

I wished for more warmth of tone, but one could hardly find fault with his stunning precision and exciting drive.

The slow movement, with its gorgeous theme over pizzicato strings, had a depth that added an extra dimension of color.

Bernstein's "Slava!" was fun, gregarious and played almost entirely in one dynamic level - loud.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. today. Tickets: 513-381-3300, www.cincinnatisymphony.org.

E-mail jgelfand@enquirer.com

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