Paranoid feelings as the sun sets on the countryside

Hurrying home before sunset. © Charles Thibo

Do you remember the post where I imagined having a walk with Pyotr Tchaikovsky in the snow-covered countryside? Let’s spin this a little further. The composer and I have had a long chat about music and the human plight. Silently we wander through the snow when we realize that the sun is about to set. We are miles from that Ukrainian cottage and we have to get home before it’s pitch dark. We might get lost or attacked by wolves. Quick, let’s hurry home. Suddenly we believe to see ghosts in the dark, there is howling noise nearby – run! And then I wake up. It was just a dream.

St. Petersburg – Paris

Shostakovich captures this sequence of peaceful musing, sudden fear and final relief in his Violin Concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129. I heard it yesterday performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg and the young Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan. I was a little apprehensive, but I came out of concert hall deeply impressed and thoroughly shaken.

The evening’s program was interesting: Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane pour un enfant défunte”, Igor Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” and Shostakovich’s second violin concerto. Ravel and Stravinsky stand for the French-Russian political and cultural alliance in the early 20th century when Russian music conquered Paris, foremost in the area of ballets. Shostakovich is their not-so-distant heir.

The choice of C sharp minor as the dominant key of a violin concerto is unusual. It is… sharp, strident, disturbing. Shostakovich wrote this piece in the spring of 1967 for the violinist David Oistrakh. Shostakovich’s biographer Laurel E. Fay quotes the dedicatee saying that the key was potentially awkward for a violinist. She also indicates that Oistrakh was overwhelmed by the “ingenious stroke of a composer who genuinely understood the expressive capabilities of the instrument”.

Who leads? The horn? The violin?

The German violinist Christian Tetzlaff commented the concerto in 2015 in an interview: “For me it is essential that like in Baroque music every harmonic development is being heard.” Tetzlaff made  a beautiful recording of this violin concerto in 2014 demonstrating all the expressive capabilities that Oistrakh spoke about. To grasp the piece’s meaning it is necessary to explore how the piece and the different elements develop over time. A challenge worth the effort.

Shostakovich himself compared the concerto to a solo piece for violin occasionally accompanied by the orchestra: “Virtually everything is set out by the solo violin, everything is concentrated in its part.” The piece, written in three movements, is reduced to the essence of musical expression, very dense, stripped bare of any ornaments that would be considered a legacy of the 19th century. Tetzlaff said in that interview, he considered Op. 129 as a concerto for horn, cello, violin and orchestra. “In many cases the horn is the actual solo performer.”

In the first movement Shostakovich repeatedly builds up the tension and releases it again. The second movement gives us some temporary relief from the previous excitement. The adagio starts with a melancholic mood, a look back, interrupted by short statements of the violin. The present cuts in. The third movement is different again. The cello, the violin and the horn engage in a short exchange of ideas. And while the violin plays a nervous chatter, the orchestra seems successful in calming it down with a slowly flowing background melody. In vain, the nervousness is contagious and the orchestra marches at the same pace as the solo violin until the end.

The advantage of aging

Khachatryan’s performance was a tour de force and my initial apprehension slowly vanished. I had listened to Khachatryan’s 2006 recording of the piece with the Orchestre National de France under Kurt Masur. I was not convinced. Too strident, too nervous, too extreme. Too proud perhaps. When Khachatryan recorded the concerto, he was 21 years old, a young hot head who had won the Jean Sibelius Violin Concerto in 2000, at the age of 15.

Khachatryan’s recording doesn’t measure up to Tetzlaff’s performance. Tetzlaff, born in 1966, manages to give the piece a warm, friendly, conciliatory tone that I missed in Khachatryan’s recording. Shostakovich wrote this concerto at the end of his career, a few years before his death, suffering from a heart disease. He was looking back on broken dreams, the gain and loss of public recognition, the praise and damnation by the Communist regime, a life between extremes. His piece reflects all this.

But at the same time he stayed true to himself as good as he could and this  gave him some consolation at the end of his life. Tetzlaff works out this aspect. Considering Shostakovich’s life, his personality, I think Tetzlaff is closer to the composer’s spirit than Khachatryan on their respective recordings. And before the Armenian started to play I thought: “Perhaps Khachatryan should record the same piece in 20 years once more. It might sound very different. Better.” After his performance yesterday I realized: Khachatryan is already on his way. Well done.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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