by Robert Rollin
This past Saturday night the Youngstown Symphony opened its 2015-16 Powers Auditorium season with a powerful, all-Russian program. Prior to coming to Ohio, Music Director Randall Craig Fleisher served as Mstislav Rostropovich’s assistant conductor at the National Symphony. Fleisher clearly displayed a talent and predilection for this music, and the Orchestra responded beautifully. The evening’s highlight was an excellent rendition of Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky’s impassioned Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Opus 74, “Pathetique” (1893).
The sixth symphony, the composer’s last and darkest completed symphony, emerged at the end of his life during a period of despondency thought to have been caused by his personal difficulties reconciling his homosexuality with the moral temperament of his day.
His 1877 marriage to Antonina Miliukova, a former student, had collapsed almost immediately because of a nervous breakdown, and his platonic and distant love of his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck did little to quiet his emotional turmoil. His last three symphonies all had connections with the power of Fate in life and death, but he reached his emotional low point while composing the sixth.
Tchaikovsky conducted its premiere only nine days before his death. He drank unboiled, cholera-infected water a few days after the performance and succumbed to the disease soon after. Though his depression existed, there is no way to know if he contracted the illness intentionally.
The sonata form first movement begins with a slow, plaintive 18-bar Adagio that is immediately followed by an Allegro non troppo more than twice as fast and on the same first theme. The sad, slow opening treats the woodwinds soloistically. Short phrases of the theme enter first in bassoon, answered by flute, and other woodwinds follow. Oboes and clarinets also participate, and the woodwind color was beautifully intense as was the emphasis on the viola section. The full strings began to dominate in the Allegro, with horns pulsating in the background. After a surging buildup of tension, the brass led the full orchestra in the first theme climax. The performance was stunning with all orchestral sections playing beautifully.
The second theme, Andante, one of the most beautifully memorable and expressive in all romantic music, begins with a lovely clarinet solo answered by solo oboe and is later taken up by the full orchestra. It dominated the balance of the movement. The final Andante section came to a gorgeous close with the sostenuto horns leading and the low strings murmuring in pizzicato.
The second movement, Allegro con grazia, famous for its character as a kind of lopsided waltz, is in five-four meter grouped as two-plus-three quarter notes, yet managed to maintain the lilting waltz rhythm. The cello section played the D major first statement gracefully and with a lovely timbre. Soon the upper strings came to the fore. The second theme in b minor was equally light. The movement rose to a climax with the entry of the brasses playing with great power and beauty. The rendition featured fine playing throughout and a particularly expressive exchange between flute solo and the bass section.
The third movement Scherzo, Allegro molto vivace, fluctuates between G major and E major, a distant Romantic era key relationship, in a loose sonata form containing two interrelated main themes. The full brunt of brasses and percussion came to bear in this massive orchestration, particularly in the closing recapitulation. The performance was brilliant.
The fourth movement Finale, Adagio lamentoso, returned to the heavyhearted first-movement mood, but presented it in a slow triple meter. A lovely horn solo, some veiled hints at the gorgeous first movement second theme, a magnificent crescendo matched with an orchestrational build up, the strange sound of a low-register muted trumpet, and a final diminuendo from low brass choir to cellos and pianissisimo pizzicato basses, all spoke to the composer’s great skill and sensitivity. The Youngstown Symphony’s performance was worthy of this magnificent piece.
The first half of the concert featured Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodencko, Gold Medal Winner at the fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He played Serge Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-Flat, Opus 31. The concerto, composed for left hand alone and commissioned by Austrian concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, received a fine performance. Wittgenstein, injured in World War I, commissioned pieces from a number of distinguished composers so that he could continue his concert career. He never actually premiered the Prokofiev 4th Concerto, saying he would only perform it when he understood it.
Though, as implied by Wittgenstein’s comment, the piece is quite intricate and complex, Kholodencko, Fleisher, and the Symphony presented a solid, clear-cut performance, which no doubt required a great deal of rehearsal time. The first movement, Vivace, started playfully and the piano raced deftly through the rapid sixteenth-note passages. Kholodencko played with poise and flair. Interesting soloistic treatments took place in clarinet, flute, and in the trombone section against the constant rapid piano lines.
The more extended second movement, Andante, was the longest and most expressive. After a short orchestral opening, the piano enters with lyrical mid-ranged lines. Later, piano arpeggio treatment contrasts with a string unison passage and a clarinet solo. The third movement, Moderato, has a rather sardonic mood and is replete with intricate accented syncopations. The very brief fourth movement, Vivace, returns to the first-movement mood and Kholodencko raced to a very high B flat at its sudden, surprising conclusion. The audience responded warmly to Kholodencko’s performance, and he in turn dashed off a flashy encore by Viennese violinist/composer Willi Boskovsky — using both hands.
The evening began with a solid performance of Tchaikovsky’s March Slav, Opus 31, commissioned by the Russian Musical Society for an 1876 concert to raise funds for wounded Russian soldiers in the Serbo-Turkish War. The work, similar in cast to the 1812 Overture, quotes two Serbian folk songs, and the Russian National Anthem of the era, God Save the Tsar. The catchy opening tune uses an intriguing Eastern mode. Attractive solos in oboe and clarinet, pulsating brass-section triplet accompaniment, and pyrotechnic use of timpani, tam-tam, and cymbals enlivened this five-minute composition.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 6, 2015.
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