When Shostakovich wrote his final symphony, the Fifteenth in 1971, arguably the composer didn’t have much new to say with the form. Closer to the end of his life, Shostakovich would write masterpieces like the Viola Sonata and Fifteenth String Quartet; pieces unique for their economy and breadth of expression. Still, in his final symphony, the composer finds a way to sum up his creative life in ways that parallel other great symphonists. Like Mahler, Beethoven, Bruckner; Shostakovich takes his own ideas, many of them put down paper in earlier symphonies, and combines them in a unique, final statement on the symphonic form. Schwarz chose the Fifteenth, along with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Alexander Borodin’s incomplete Third Symphony, for the Seattle Symphony program that began on Thursday evening.
The Fifteenth symphony begins deceptively. Described by the composer as a “toy shop,” the first movement gallops and trips along with impressive playing by the winds and basses. Quotations from Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” add to the carefree spirit of the piece. If you hadn’t heard the symphony before, you might get the impression it was going to be another wry and ironic piece from a composer known for his ambiguity and hidden messages. But, hazy dissonances interrupt the mood, preventing this carefree spirit from completely dominating the movement. The second movement alludes to later pieces, like the Viola Sonata, with dreary, colorless passages for each section of the orchestra. In the final movement, Shostakovich again quotes an outside musical voice, this time it is Wagner and the theme used in the Rhine Gold and throughout the Ring to signal “fate.”
By the time the orchestra finished, I found the best way to appreciate the piece is to view it as an extensive solo showpiece because many of the orchestra’s principals, too many to list individually, stood out for their exceptional playing. Unfortunately, the audience wasn’t as appreciative and far too many people collected their coats and bolted for the door before the orchestra got the due it deserved.
In truth, Thursday’s draw wasn’t Shostakovich’s symphony, but the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos who came to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is a familiar repertory piece, and dull performances are more typical than you would expect. Kavakos and the SSO weren’t always on the same page, but the performance was anything but ordinary. In the first movement, both Kavakos and the orchestra burst with passion at just the right moments. The orchestra swelled as the solo violin receded. For Kavakos’s part, his playing was a model of precision and unbound excitement. As the slow movement drifted toward the torrential finale, Kavakos raised his bow high above his head, bounced nervously in place, and when the third movement began, brought his bow cascading onto his violin’s strings flooding Benaroya Hall with rapid fire notes.
Kavakos challenged the orchestra – emboldened by the history of a concerto as a struggle between an orchestra and soloist – with blindingly fast clips of music. The SSO wasn’t always able to keep up, but Kavakos didn’t seem to mind, he was enjoying his tussle with the orchestra. Right before the movement ended, however, the SSO seemed ready to eclipse Kavakos and leave him behind in a contrail of Tchaikovskyian melody, but the violinist perked up, reasserted himself, and darted to the end of the piece where the audience jumped out of their seats with applause.
Schwarz and the SSO began the concert with Borodin’s seldom heard Third Symphony. Borodin sketched a few movements but it took Alexander Glazunov to complete them. The playful first movement was memorable for Ben Hausmann’s song-like solo work that rose above the orchestra before the music he presented was picked up and repeated by the rest of the orchestra. The second movement’s two sections are a contrast in styles – one is rhythmic and forceful the other relaxed and lyrical. The piece ended, like Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, with me wanting more.
The final symphonies of both Borodin and Shostakovich were a good way to flank Thursday’s violin concerto main attraction. I doubt Shostakovich and Borodin’s final symphonies are as well known as the composers themselves. Nevertheless, the works deserve to be better known, especially Shostakovich’s symphony, which is a final statement from one of the Twentieth Century’s most prolific and important symphonists.