When conductor Semyon Bychkov shows up at Orchestra Hall's door, he arrives dragging a steamer trunk with a giant orchestral score and its parts stuffed inside.* Two seasons ago, it was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8—not a behemoth, but not a trifle, either—last year it was Strauss's Alpine Symphony. Last night began his weekend of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 ("Leningrad"), another of those pieces that requires the assistance of the local garrison's brass band.
Written during the siege of Leningrad in 1941 and ostensibly depicting the never-ending Nazi onslaught, the first movement invites a certain amount of grandiosity and volume and fist-shaking as the march grinds on. But Bychkov pulled a fast one, literally, by starting out briskly and having everyone play the theme with some space between the notes. (One player quipped that the 900-day siege of Leningrad only took 50 in Bychkov's version.) The lack of lyricism kept everyone on their toes, made it lighter, and helped Bychkov clarify the textures. Counterthemes were actual partners in the dialogue, and prodded the main theme on. Every instrumental choir was audible in there, and what could've been sonic mush was a collection of piercing choirs. It did get plenty loud, but managed to be overwhelming without being sloppy, and taut the entire way through.
Bychkov also showed tremendous skill in keeping the third movement from bogging down and shaped that movement grandly. The flute duet sticks out in my memory as an especially fine moment, but Bychkov kept the movement flowing so easily that the duet felt less like a bauble and more like a piece of a collection.
Even in the finale, Bychkov kept everything on an even keel, up to and including when the row of brass reinforcements stood for the final statement. (Is this normal? The brass often stand at the end of Mahler's First Symphony, but I don't know what performance history exists for the Shostakovich. Dr. Taruskin, are you reading this?) The agitated section with the syncopated pizzicatos jumped out, because the players adopted the so-called Bartók pizzicato, which snaps the string against the fingerboard. It sounded like an enormous whip cracked against the floor of the stage.
Pianist Yundi Li showed up to play Ravel's G major Concerto first on the program. He has a shy demeanor, doesn't draw a lot of attention to himself when he's walking onstage, doesn't wear flashy clothes—and there's a bit of a blank when it comes to his playing, too. The second movement swam about in a series of pastel shades, with practically no definition to his playing, and he tapped out these bizarre accents in the opening solo that negated any sense of repose. Michael Henoch played the English horn solo well. A tight sense of ensemble was pretty lacking in the first movement, suggesting rehearsal time had been spent elsewhere, but Li did rise to the occasion by the final movement, which crackled.
A gargantuan Russian symphony and a tidy French piano probably don't appear to have much to do with each other on first glance. But Shostakovich modeled the symphony on Boléro, famously, and said something to the effect that, "I'm sorry if this sounds like Boléro, but it's what war sounds like to me." (In a story in this week's Time Out, the orchestra's artistic adviser, Gerard McBurney, explained the connections a little more fully.)
France and Russia have a fascinating history of influencing each other, since they both viewed themselves as standing outside the central Austro-German tradition. Where that cultural exchange can be read in Hector Berlioz's Memoirs, when he toured Russia. (Like Bychkov, he also traveled with a giant steamer trunk full of scores and parts.*)
If I were an enterprising pianist or presenter, I'd organize some sort of tour where I played Shostakovich's First Concerto and the Ravel G major, to demonstrate how both were influenced by vernacular music, or put Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnol on the same program as Stravinsky's Firebird, and let people hear how exactingly Stravinsky mimes Ravel. But I'm not, so I'll throw them out there, and see if someone copies me five years from now.
*Bychkov does not actually travel with his music in a steamer trunk, as far as I know.