An hour before Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert, The New York Times ran the headline “As Russia Strikes Ukraine, Putin Tries to Cast Fight in Historic Terms.”
Since Russia launched its brutal invasion last spring, concerts celebrating the glory of Russian culture — so much great music, so central to the orchestral repertoire — have become fraught affairs.
An orchestra that had planned, say, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 might wish to reconsider a performance, since the beloved 1872 classic taps themes from Ukrainian folk music and is nicknamed the “Little Russian” Symphony — making the historical case for dictator Vladimir Putin’s claim that Ukraine is essential to Mother Russia’s lost empire.
But no such complications exist for music of embattled Soviet composers — artists who, under dictator Josef Stalin, feared for their careers, or their lives, as they spoke of artistic and cultural reality. Their art, still so raw and authentic, is testimony to that history. Today, once again, they are the truth-tellers of the moment.
Thursday in Symphony Hall, ASO Music Director Nathalie Stutzmann led just such a program, with the two titans of Soviet music, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich.
Both works — Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony — have complicated histories that reveal the life of an artist under political domination and fear, where speaking freely could send you to the gulag and communicating in a sort of code was one risky option. Rather than feel utterly suffocated and go silent, these composers somehow found an outlet that expressed the duality of their situation. This is not the history Putin is promoting.
Prokofiev, born in what’s now Ukraine, reworked an earlier cello concerto into the grand Sinfonia concertante, which is known as perhaps the most technically impossible work in a cellist’s standard repertoire. This “Symphony concerto” isn’t often performed: It’s too damn difficult for the soloist, at 40 minutes it fills up a full half of a concert, and it’s perhaps not the crowd-pleaser of works like his gritty and hummable ballet Romeo and Juliet or sensational piano and violin concertos, among many of the composer’s enduring gems. The ASO last performed it more than three decades ago.
But the Sinfonia concertante, painted on a big canvas and wonderfully original, is stirring on every level. For the listener, it rewards familiarity. It opens with a giant ticking clock from the orchestra or, more whimsically, like a wind-up doll’s heartbeat. That four-note tick-tock returns again and again, like a memento mori: Your time on this earth will soon be up; the authorities will squash you; make the best of what remains.
French cellist Edgar Moreau, still in his 20s and making his ASO debut, had awesome technique and cheerful endurance as our protagonist, playing almost continuously throughout. The work is written in a way that the solo part is always exposed even as the full orchestra blasts away or crafts their tunes — Prokofiev’s delightfully somber melodies, at once angular, beautiful, grotesque — in support behind him.
Stutzmann and the orchestra were slow to congeal, and everyone on stage was blocky, four-squared and not quite together for much of the opening movement. But in the long solo cello cadenzas in the second movement, Moreau grew in stature and found his commanding voice. Stutzmann and crew followed. In the third movement, Moreau delivered the episodes of perpetual motion with dazzling accuracy and insouciant wit, his daredevil moves tossed off effortlessly. He sweated a lot and looked exhausted at the end, but he handsomely delivered for this unusual behemoth.
He returned for an encore, the stately sarabande from Bach’s Third Cello Suite, delivered as if he were alone in his practice room, without fuss.
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is certainly the most famous bit of dual-sided apology in music history. This symphony, all by itself, requires a unit of a 20th-century music history class to understand all the background, what with the wildly precocious Shostakovich; his racy opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District playing across Europe and in the U.S. and, simultaneously, at two theaters in Moscow; the day Stalin, an amateur music critic with lethal judgments, attended a performance of the opera and hated the music and was outraged at the rape scene; the days afterward, when Pravda condemned the composer for his “formalist” tendencies (whatever that meant); and on to the Symphony No. 5, in 1937, offered as “a Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism.”
He wrote a symphony to save his own life and career, one that satisfied the Soviet apparatchiks: this independent, bad-boy composer had been suitably humbled and would now follow the patriotic Stalinist program. Instead, he became more cautious, always more ambiguous, in his musical statements.
Since the subject is so charged and the layers so elastic, this totally abstract piece of music, the Symphony No. 5 in D minor, can be played with radically different meanings.
From those quiet, silken first notes, it was clear that Stutzmann’s reading would be mournful and searching, bringing the unease to the surface. At her best, as she was Thursday, Stutzmann reimagines familiar works, building them up from scratch, considering the music from different angles, thinking in three full dimensions. A listener had the feeling that here the conductor had weighed and polished every phrase.
The slinky, sarcastic, waltzing second movement was full of bright energy but, again, highlighted by that undercurrent of angst. She kept it light on its feet. She took the tender, wounded third movement at a slower-than-usual tempo, and it rose to an unbearable tension before releasing into another pool of uncertainty, edging into despair. There were many memorable solos from within the orchestra, perhaps most notably Zachary Boeding’s hauntingly beautiful oboe playing.
The big, martial finale can be controversial — whose history are you willing to tell? Take it at face value, as many conductors have, and it’s heroic and triumphant, perhaps proof of one man’s steely resolve, a victory for life over doom.
But Stutzmann came at it from the opposite end. She had prepped her players (and listeners) for an epic resolution to a very personal drama. The music builds and builds, the orchestra at thrilling full power; then it regroups and catapults toward — what, exactly? Pages of sawing figures from the strings, rather than muscular and assertive, felt meek, hollowed out.
I suppose that if you didn’t know anything about this symphony, you might come away feeling more than a little unsatisfied. But Stutzmann offered us Shostakovich’s perspective on history. Exactly right.
The program repeats Friday at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Columbus State University’s RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.
Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.