A London Summer with Huntley Dent / Music / The Berkshire Review in London

Prom 54: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Frederick Delius and Shostakovich

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Vasily Petrenko. Photo: Mark McNulty.
Vasily Petrenko. Photo: Mark McNulty.

Prom 54 — August 23

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Tasmin Little, violin

Vasily Petrenko, conducto

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies — Symphony no. 9 (London premiere)

Frederick Delius — Violin Concerto

Dmitri Shostakovich — Symphony no. 10

Resistance movements. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that they had a musical star in Vasily Petrenko, the boyish thirtysomething conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. He debuted with them in 2004 at the age of 28 with brilliant promise. No one spoke of promise after a concert or two; they were already floored. One of a star’s perks is a roaring welcome at the Proms. You’d have thought at the end of their concert two nights ago that the orchestra had just played Crown Imperial rather than the angst-ridden Shostakovich Tenth.

I’ll just set it down to general jubilation. Here is a major talent on the order, perhaps, of Bernstein and Karajan. Petrenko’s two hands can’t quite decide which one he might be: the right delivers a precise beat with fluid wrist action while the left does whatever it takes to seduce emotional intensity from the musicians, whether pointing an index finger like a dueling pistol (“Play your solo, or else!”) or clutching with upturned palm like a dying opera diva (“Rodolfo, it’s you! If only I could stop coughing.”). Bernstein wins in the end, since no one I’ve seen since him uses beguiling smiles and darting glances the way Petrenko does. He’s totally relaxed and comfortable on the podium, and why not?  The Liverpool players love him, and in return he makes them sound like heroes.

The program displayed two of the many extremes in modernism. Before the Shostakovich, the first half gave us the rollicking Symphony no. 9 by Peter Maxwell Davies, who lives in the Orkneys at Scotland’s northern tip. Davies has split the difference when it comes to dissonance versus consonance. On the one hand he accepts Schoenberg’s decree that the dissonance, once “liberated,” can function on equal terms with diatonic harmony. In the Ninth there are two brass choirs that swagger without restraint. Sometimes they sound like fourteen Sancho Panzas riding drunken donkeys, at other times like a box of chattering monkeys. But putting modernist gestures into words is futile. Let’s leave it that Davies, an ingenious, at times jolly user of  dissonance, wants to give the trumpets the best holiday they’ve ever had, and since the symphony is dedicated to QE II in her Diamond Jubilee year by the composer who serves as Master of the Queen’s Music, there are fanfares and flourishes to last another sixty years.

The other side of Davies, rooted in Scottish folk music and country dances, continues the anti-dissonant tendency of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who only gave Schoenberg the most passing glance in the crunching dissonant chords that break bones in the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. Davies assigns some keening, dark themes to the strings, serving as a solemn floor for the riotous brass interjections. There’s a great deal more variety in the one-movement half-hour Ninth than I’m suggesting, and as the composer, a hale and hearty 77, took his bows, one was reminded that his enduring talent deserves more of a listen outside the UK. The balance between drama and fun in this symphony made it a crowd-pleaser, thanks to Petrenko’s skill with antic dispositions.

Almost total resistance to the dissonant side of modernism came from Frederick Delius, whose music is also the most liquid I’ve ever heard, almost never finding solid ground. Here gentle pastoralism becomes a fetish. Although written in 1916, the Delius Violin Concerto is oblivious of strife. Its harmonies languish around a tonality while vaguely gazing at the moon, and attempts at actual melody fall prey to serious mental wandering. My companion commented that the Violin Concerto seemed stronger than usual, and it does feature some loud brass outbursts to test if the audience’s Ambien has worn off. Tasmin Little, a graceful English violinist who can make something out of gentle wafting, played the solo part beautifully. But the writing for the violin was like “The Lark Ascending” trapped inside the endless loop of the movie Groundhog Day. I realize that Delius is beloved by the English and that Sir Thomas Beecham considered him a major composer, just for the record.

Dmitri Shostakovich.
Dmitri Shostakovich.

“Stubborn resistance” could be the epitaph of Shostakovich, but not along the lines of dissonance versus consonance. Without acknowledging the Second Viennese School, he produced dissonance as a natural reaction to horror and oppression. No other genius has gone to bed every night wondering if jack-booted agents from the Cheka or OGPU would drag him off before dawn. Many of his scores smell of cigarettes and insomnia. The Stalinist terror was given a kind of musical capstone by the fact that the Shostakovich Tenth was premiered in 1953, the year Stalin died. The symphony’s bitter, manic Scherzo has been read as a jeer at the monstrous dictator, but that’s second guessing, I imagine (sketches for the symphony date back to 1946, and it might have been completed as early as 1951 — the composer was as shadowy on the matter as on many other details of his life).

Without sinking so deep into the netherworld that it seems to describe the walking dead, like the overwhelmingly gloomy Eighth Symphony, the Tenth will serve as one of the saddest elegies to the Soviet era and to the nightmares of the twentieth century in general. There is just enough light in the score to tell us that benumbed minds and frozen hearts are beginning to awaken. When the Tenth came out, Western orchestras were quick to leap at any new work from Shostakovich; the U.S. premiere under Dimitri Mitropouls and the New York Philharmonic was electrifying, as you can still hear on the Columbia recording made a day after the event (with some searching you can also find a radio broadcast of the actual concert). Mitropoulos aimed for something more urgent and terrifying than what Petrenko was after at the Proms.

He belongs to a younger, post-Soviet generation who venerate Shostakovich but do not dip into his biography for chilling anxiety. The Tenth can be played instead for mournful reverie and sheer beauty of sound, as Petrenko did. He drew blood with the Scherzo’s knife edge, but otherwise the long first movement, which occupies nearly half the work, was a study in refined  melancholy. That’s not my preferred way, but with such perfect poise, this reading was impossible to resist. The last two movements can seem like a letdown emotionally. Some motifs sound like insects tapping at the windowpane, and woodwind solos sing on the verge of tears. It’s hard to get these two movements to tell a story — they usually serve as decompression chambers after the symphony’s wrenching first half. Mitropoulos pushed the music into extra urgency; Petrenko allowed his highly expressive woodwind soloists, particularly the English horn, bassoon, and oboe,  to mesmerize us in slow motion, like an adagio pas de deux from a Tchaikovsky ballet costumed in black.

The performance deserved the lengthy ovation it received, but Petrenko took all the adulation without a broad, triumphant smile. He looked spent and moved by the music. They say that the secret to great conducting is simple, for those who can unlock it. “I imagine how the music should go, and then it does,” Leonard Bernstein said. The Shostakovich Tenth places a withered bouquet at the grave site of mass terrors. I’m glad that Petrenko and his generation never saw its like, but I’m equally glad that they understand what the fathomless darkness once did.

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