CSO Britten and Shostakovich-A Persuasive Case for Britten Violin Concerto, Plus an Old Standby

Whatever the intentions of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s dubiously titled “Truth to Power” festival, the linking of the music of Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, and Dmitri Shostakovich has made for some exciting combinations, concluding with a pairing of Britten’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 at Orchestra Hall Thursday night. Linking Britten and Shostakovich is a tenuous thing politically, but it was appropriate musically. Both composers are solid products of the twentieth century, an age of anxiety and uncertainty that extended to music. Neither work presented in this program was a polished work, but rather, but incorporating rough edges into their compositions, both Britten and Shostakovich demonstrated the difficulty in creating something new in well-established forms but, as this week’s concert showed, it was possible to be successful.


Jaap van Zweden conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The final concert led by Dutch maestro Jaap van Zweden, who has presided over all the “Truth to Power” programs, began with Britten’s Violin Concerto, a seldom-performed work that is musically, not politically, radical,. The concerto was influenced heavily by Alban Berg’s concerto, and Britten’s work recapitulates much of the anxiety and melancholy of that piece. Van Zweden’s handling of the orchestra was truly remarkable; by avoiding arbitrary pitch swings, the orchestra’s sound was faint but perfectly clear. The few powerful moments were supplied by the strings, whose vigorous sound was splendidly dominant at a few crucial moments.


The soloist for the concerto, van Zweden’s fellow Dutch Simone Lamsma, gave an impressive star turn in her performance, distinguished by her total commitment and confidence with the difficult solos that seemed to express private anguish. The young violinist showed a maturity beyond her years and a facility for Britten’s avant-garde writing. Lamsma’s performance was met with great enthusiasm from the Orchestra Hall audience, which she repaid with an encore of the Largo from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3, an odd performance because she seemed to approach the Bach with the same intense, private style she had in the Britten concerto.


The concert concluded then segued to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, one of the two symphonies, along with the Tenth, represent his prime accomplishments in the genre (why van Zweden or anybody, as he and the CSO did a couple of weeks ago, would still chose to subject an audience to the interminable Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony, which sounds like somebody squeezed 30 minutes of music into 85, is a question which still puzzles me.)


Jaap van Zweden and Chicago Symphony Orchestra

However, the Fifth is a staple of most symphony orchestras, and its entertaining merits are easily demonstrated, as the CSO did Thursday night. The dramatic first movement, hobbled only by the fact each of the woodwinds takes a turn playing essentially the same solo, was played at a slightly fast pace. Again as in the Britten concerto, van Zweden did a nice job keeping the orchestra’s tone in check, but here, he built the orchestra up to the crescendos and unleashed them at just the right moments, which were furious barrages of powerful playing, with the strings, the horns, and the percussion all building up to frenzied levels simultaneously, yet with each section’s clarity coming through perfectly, an amazing effect.


Chicago Symphony Orchestra

This approach continued through the scherzo second movement and the long, plaintive third movement, with the occasional attention-grabbing crescendo which highlighted an effect of this symphony that some may dislike, Shostakovich's overwrought climaxes which can sometimes distort the effect of a particular movement. This is a legitimate criticism, but we can enjoy Shostakovich’s music more if we regard him as a composer whose work is on the periphery of greatness, rather towards the center of it. In other words, it’s perfectly acceptable if a composer’s symphony is just entertaining rather than profound. That being said, van Zweden's conducting of the final movement, which did feature far too much arbitrary bombast, would firmly put me into the category of those who seek to dampen the enthusiasm of those in the audience impressed by displays of raw power. 

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's "Truth to Power" series presentation of the Britten Violin Concerto and Shostakovich's Symphony 5, will be given again on Saturday, June 7 at 8:00 PM and Sunday, June 8 at 3:00 PM.

photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

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