Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: a double dose of gloom

03.08.13
Leonidas Kavakos
Houston Chronicle

By Steven Brown

There are no two ways about it. There's a double dose of Russian brooding - not to say gloom - in this weekend's Houston Symphony concerts.

The orchestra forgoes any snappy curtain-raiser. It opens with Dmitri Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1, one of a string of Shostakovich works haunted by the stresses of life under the Soviets. After intermission comes Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony, so famous for its tumult and lamentation. Then everyone calls it a night.

The surprising thing is that the pairing doesn't come off as lugubriously as you might think.

Thursday night, the orchestra and violinist Leonidas Kavakos played the concerto with such soul and intensity that the music came across as a human drama, not a sob story. The "Pathetique" was much the same way. Conductor Hans Graf and the orchestra savored the lyricism and laid into the outbursts, but they never let Tchaikovsky wallow. In the finale, Graf kept the heavy-hearted melodies moving, albeit spaciously. So the final fade-away sounded inevitable rather than melodramatic.

In the concerto's opening - built around the solo violin's long, roaming melody - Kavakos gave ebb and flow to a soliloquy that can meander in the wrong hands. Often the melody was hushed, sometimes it swelled, but it was always alive. No matter how quietly Kavakos played, the orchestra complemented him, creating a dark-hued, evocative backdrop.

When Shostakovich's tensions finally erupted, Kavakos and the orchestra alike played with agility, fearlessness and bite. The third movement, built on a recurring melody deep in the orchestra, built inexorably to a climax - with the solo violin singing out vibrantly above it - and tapered away just as tellingly. Then Kavakos created another long but relentless buildup in the violin's big cadenza. It grew from a mere wisp of sound to a whirlwind.

The orchestra was as compelling in the subtlety it gave the subdued spots as in the brashness it put into the outbursts. In the "Pathetique," it wasn't quite as refined. As the cellos sailed through their tune in the waltz-like second movement, for instance, some of the winds' background parts stuck out awkwardly.

But Tchaikovsky's emotional power still came through. Graf had the strings begin their famous first-movement melody extra quietly, heightening its sweetness and intimacy. The clarinet later echoed it as quietly as I've ever heard. Then Graf set loose another explosion. It was Tchaikovsky at his most visceral.