Andrew Litton returns every other year to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra, where he once assisted Mstislav Rostropovich. This time it was with a Russian program, one part showy treacle and two parts epic bombast, heard last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
The last time the NSO played Shostakovich’s 11th symphony (“The Year 1905”), in 2005, it was one of the high-water marks of the tenure of Leonard Slatkin. It is a terrifying ride, a fist-clenching musical description of the Jan. 9, 1905, massacre carried out by the czar’s troops. In an unannounced lecture by Litton, accompanied by musical examples played by the orchestra, Litton illustrated the Russian songs quoted by Shostakovich. These tunes are as recognizable to most Russian ears as any number of American patriotic songs would be to an American listener.
Where Litton went wrong was to mention widely discredited theories that Shostakovich was not really celebrating this prelude to the Soviet Revolution but making veiled references to the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Although the events in Hungary occurred around the time of the premiere of the 11th symphony, created for the 40th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, scholar Laurel Fay has shown that there is no evidence that Shostakovich had that event in mind at all. If there is any argument about that connection, it is a debate, she said, “that was engaged posthumously.”
On the contrary, the symphony won Shostakovich the Lenin Prize, and Fay has carefully documented the speeches, articles and testimonials that created the public image of Shostakovich “as a sincerely reclaimed loyalist, a cultural pitchman for the causes of the Communist Party and Soviet state” by this point in his life. She even refers to the exasperation expressed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book “The Gulag Archipelago” that Shostakovich had not, like him, heard a prisoner in a Soviet concentration camp sing the revolutionary song “Listen!” before he had used it in the 11th symphony. “Either he wouldn’t have touched it at all,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “or he would have expressed its modern instead of its extinct significance.”
Be that as it may, the events of the “Bloody Sunday” uprising were personally significant for Shostakovich, for his father was apparently among the workers involved in the demonstration in the square that day. Litton and the NSO did the work justice, from the muted tension of the first movement, evoking the frigid winter of that year, to the fast and furious second movement, which grew into an implacable, anxious howl. Special commendation goes to the always polished solos from the muted trumpets, the groans of the contraforte and other low reeds, and the sickening chromatic slides of the trombones.
If the interpretation was not exactly brilliant, it had something to do with a slight slackening of intensity in the funeral march of the third movement. The fourth movement had a keening English horn solo, played with customary beauty by Kathryn Meany Wilson, the last moment of reflection before the work’s clamorous conclusion.
The debut of Vadim Gluzman came unfortunately in yet another performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, which the Israeli violinist has recorded with Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic. It is a piece all too easy to make no impression in, since it is so often played, last heard from the NSO just last year. Gluzman produced a beefy sound on the G string and tended to slather on the rubato awfully thick. He took the finale with reckless velocity and tended to favor fierce immediacy over technical polish, so that the intonation at the top end of the instrument was not always on the mark and the high flautando notes more razor-sharp than fluty. The audience naturally demanded an encore, the “Gavotte en Rondeau” from Bach’s E major partita.