Public and private Shostakovich both given their due at Ravinia

08.02.09
Christoph Eschenbach, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Chicago Classical Review

By Dennis Polkow

The private and the public Dmitri Shostakovich were juxtaposed Saturday evening in an all-Shostakovich program at Ravinia that presented his somber Violin Concerto No. 1 alongside of his triumphant Symphony No. 5.

In the wake of the second government ban on his music in 1948, Shostakovich quietly shelved the First Violin Concerto and several other works, as he had notoriously shelved the Fourth Symphony and other works during the initial government ban on his music in 1937.  Most of these scores would not see the light of day until well after Stalin’s death.

The  Violin Concerto, composed with the sound of David Oistrakh in mind, remains a remarkable work, representing the often elusive and paradoxical composer at his most brooding and most introspective apart from the string quartets.

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has the qualities to reveal this music in all of its depth, and all were on display in a riveting performance.  Wearing a black-sequined blouse and white silk patterned pants with white heels, she began the piece as slowly and quietly as any violinist dare, playing to her trademark strength of a vibrant, rich sound even at the lowest dynamics.

The outdoor audience was so attentive that Ravinia was, uncharacteristically, as quiet as a church.  Even a single cell phone going off could not break the spell and Eschenbach and the CSO were right there with her every step of the way, as if to say, anything you can play, I can play softer.

The Scherzo was performed like a devilishly playful tribal dance, Salerno-Sonnenberg bouncing along and bowing on the edge of her strings, giving her timbre a delightfully steely sound and turning to the orchestra during its sections, as affected by their music-making as her own.

But it was the Passacaglia cadenza that was most memorable. Salerno-Sonnenberg traversed the upper limits of her instrument with a focused yet contemplatively quiet sound that alternated a straight tone with variations of vibrato and shading when needed, all of which forged a perfect contrast with a breakneck Burlesque finale that was instantly greeted with a cheering standing ovation.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony has always been an Eschenbach favorite: he recorded the piece in Houston and again in Philadelphia, and this is at least his second rendition of the work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia.

The work has a notorious history of being Shostakovich’s crowd and party-pleasing public apology for his initial fall from government grace, and many seek to underline his allegedly ironic intentions by over-exaggerating its militaristic and majestic qualities.

Not Eschenbach, who refreshingly takes the score as is with neither a pro- nor anti-Stalinist subtext superimposed.  Eshenbach reminds us of how much this music ultimately owes to Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss, bringing out Viennese warmth to the string playing and consistently refusing to allow the work to spill over into excess, which is often done in the service of satire.     

This is most reflected in the subtle manner in which Eschenbach makes the transition from minor to major in the climax of the piece, the effect of which Eschenbach clearly sees as a descendent of Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung, giving it the same sparkling sonority and sense of inevitability.