Shostakovich Centennial Concert

The New York Philharmonic on Thursday, September 28.

Like many orchestras, the New York Philharmonic performed a concert in honor of the 100th anniversary of composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s birth. The program notes focused on the debate about Shostakovich’s relationship to the Soviet government, and that, too, was probably fairly universal from orchestra to orchestra. The story of Shostakovich’s rocky musical career is too dramatic for any writer to resist.

Twice denounced by Stalin—the first time at the onset of the Great Terror—Shostakovich nonetheless survived to write numerous symphonies, string quartets, concertos, operas, and other works that entered the canon not only in his homeland but in America and Western Europe, too. The Soviet regime used much of his music as propaganda—and Shostakovich accepted and even encouraged that—but later musicians and historians have argued that some of his compositions were actually subversive, satirizing rather than celebrating Soviet aesthetic ideals and burying coded anti-government messages into his music.

The debate is fascinating, but I think it distracts from Shostakovich’s music. That’s unfortunate because, as the Philharmonic demonstrated Thursday night, Shostakovich’s music is thrilling—essentially romantic but enlivened by a vivid use of repetitive motives and a delicious crunch of chromatics. The Philharmonic’s selections—the cello concerto and the fifth symphony—are a joy to experience whether they contain subversive messages or not.

I’m particularly fond of the cello concerto, which does a magnificent job of showcasing the string instrument’s versatility. Over the course of four movements, the solo line features vibrant, soaring melodies; eerie harmonic tones; emphatic, percussive sawing; and rich, double-stop harmonies. Cellist Lynn Harrell was exceptional, particularly in the extensive cadenza, though I think he could have been more ferocious in the more primitivist passages. Harrell seemed better suited for the concerto’s romantic passages, the blisteringly romantic lines that soar like a human voice on one long breath.

The fifth symphony came after intermission and suffered slightly by comparison with the concerto. Shostakovich wrote his fifth symphony fairly early in his career, in 1937, as a response to Pravda’s condemnation of him as a decadent formalist. Perhaps as a result, the symphony is a safer, less daring work, and the brawny, heroic elements sometimes feel strained. The best movement is the second, the Allegretto. At that point, Shostakovich’s jovial, impish side hops out on an endearingly off-kilter waltz beat. The blare of full orchestra melts away as the score calls for fewer instruments and a lighter, dance-like texture.

The Philharmonic played the movement with nimble good humor and then swept me along into the final two movements, as well. The relentless triumphalism might have been a bit wearying, but the final climactic cadences reverberated in the marrow of my bones. That’s not a credit to the melodrama of Shostakovich’s biography; it’s a credit to the power of his music.