Wednesday, December 7, 2011


December 6

The program for last night’s Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra concert promised Maxim Shostakovich at the podium, conducting three of his father’s works. Unfortunately, illness prevented Maxim from making the trip to Prague. But Ukrainian conductor Yuri Yanko graciously agreed to take his place, with satisfying results.

Yanko: A salutary stand-in.
Maxim has been a regular visitor to Prague over the past 20 years, recording a complete set of his father’s 15 symphonies with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. “This orchestra understands Shostakovich very well, and what he’s saying in his music,” he told this writer in a 2005 interview. “It’s always a happy moment for me to be conducting in Prague.” Maxim cut a commanding figure at the podium, unleashing fiery versions of the symphonies that sounded like thunderheads rolling into Smetana Hall at Obecní dům.

Yanko showed there’s another way to approach Shostakovich, particularly with last night’s program. The first half featured two uncharacteristically light works, the introduction to the ballet The Golden Age and his Piano Concerto No. 2. They served as a bright counterpoint to the second half of the program, the hour-long and decidedly less cheerful Symphony No. 8.

The dissonance between the horns and woodwinds early in the Golden Age introduction quickly identifies it as a Shostakovich piece, though in every other respect it’s a festive and colorful work, with snatches of melodies that promise some lively dancing. Shostakovich wrote it after a visit to Weimar Germany, and the score reflects the vibrant jazz and cabaret music of the period. Yanko set a brisk tempo and kept the woodwinds lucent and sharp above the droning strings, opening the evening like a bottle of champagne.

A Romantic approach.
The conductor’s version of the Piano Concerto No. 2 was the smoothest Shostakovich this critic has ever heard, without a single harsh note or rough edge. The liquid quality of the sound owed a lot to soloist Hyejin Kim, a young Korean who studied in Berlin and has made an impressive showing in international competitions. Versed in a repertoire that leans more toward Romantics like Beethoven and Schumann, she has a light, fluid touch that worked best in the andante, with its slower pace and expressive themes. Yanko toned down the orchestra to let Kim shine, so much so that at times she seemed to be leading the piece. But her performance garnered generous applause, both from the audience and orchestra musicians.

The Symphony No. 8 was more typical of Shostakovich, with a big percussion section put to full use and long passages of tortured strings that have been interpreted as the artist being crushed by the oppressive Soviet system. Yanko showed that he could build movements to the intensity that characterizes most interpretations of Shostakovich, developing powerful depth and dynamics. Otherwise he took a deliberate approach, setting a relatively calm, steady tempo and emphasizing the solo passages, layering them into the larger orchestral sound with fine precision. Especially notable was the clarity and transparency he got from such a large ensemble. And it’s hard to recall any Shostakovich work drawing to such a subdued, whispered finish.

Yanko shares one characteristic with Maxim Shostakovich: As he came out to sustained applause for his final bow of the evening, Yanko held up the score, a gesture that Maxim often makes after a performance of his father’s music. It’s a generous acknowledgment of the composer’s work and significance – and a reminder that when you’re playing Shostakovich, no matter who is at the podium, the real star of the show is Shostakovich.

No comments:

Post a Comment