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Spirit of Mahler Informs Järvi's Shostakovich

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 4, 2006 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2006

    There was a special person in the audience Friday morning at Music Hall when music director Paavo Järvi led the Cincinnati Symphony in a stunning performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, the "Leningrad." Yuri Maizels of Mount Washington was 6 years old when his grandfather, David Katzman, played piccolo in the premiere of the symphony in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
   It was August 1942 and, as payment for the concert, each musician received "one piece of bread." Katzman died in 1943, one of the hundreds of thousands who perished during the 900-day siege by the German army.
   Järvi, a 1980 émigré from Soviet-occupied Estonia, channeled powerful authority into the work. Shostakovich revealed in later years that the "enemy" portrayed in the symphony was not only Hitler, but also Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The performance had a keener edge than any I have heard to date, and the CSO audience responded accordingly, showering him with bravos and a standing ovation that seemed genuinely inspired.
   Shostakovich distills the German invasion into an obsessive, 22-bar march in the first movement, which intrudes stealthily on the piccolo's wistful solo (the CSO's Joan Voorhees). The theme is repeated 14 times, "Bolero"-fashion, then elaborated with cataclysmic fury (kudos to David Fishlock and Fred Thiergarden on snare drum).
   While this filled Music Hall as few things can - the work requires extra brasses - Järvi saved the hard work for the finale, which must emerge painfully, like a wounded animal, before achieving victory at last. The middle movements were filled with color - Ronald Aufman's rumbly bass clarinet with harp and flutes in the second movement, starkly voiced winds and passionate strings in the Adagio. The spirit of Mahler and his symphonies, much admired by Shostakovich, hovered over Järvi throughout.
   Järvi wasn't the only one who brought a special touch to the concert. Guest artist Dmitri Sitkovetsky, a 1977 Soviet émigré, invested Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 with subliminal reflection, as if acknowledging the ambiguity of the composer's relationship with the Soviet regime.
   It was an eloquent, aristocratic performance, almost Mozartean for its classical polish, while delivering a clear emotive message. There was a tinge of sadness in the opening movement and precise rhythmic bite. The Andante unfolded gently, Sitkovetsky's honeyed tone giving it sweetness without forcing. The finale was good-naturedly raucous (passages high on the G string maintained a satin sheen) and the virtuosic scamper at the end seemed like child's play. Ensemble with Järvi and the CSO was hand-in-glove, Sitkovetsky's cues and body language insuring a faultless collaboration.
   The concert opened with Leonard Bernstein's jazzy "Slava: A Political Overture," a 1977 tribute to cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. A kind of "West Side Story" meets "Candide," it included taped campaign rhetoric and a lusty shout of "Slava" by the CSO players at the end.
   Repeat is 8 p.m. tonight at Music Hall.
(first published in The Cincinnati Post Nov. 4, 2006)