For the first time, the Rotterdam Philharmonisch Orkest welcomes former chief conductor and now honourary conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin back to Rotterdam. Yannick is coming with a programme I would not have expected for his first time back: The programme is full of death and destruction, with Mahler’s Totenfeier and Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, the latter sung by the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Mikhail Petrenko. It is Yannick’s only concert here in 2019, he only returns in February 2020 with Mahler 5 and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Let’s get into it.
Mahler’s Totenfeier is really nothing more than an early version of the 30-minute long first movement of the Second Symphony. It has a slightly lesser instrumentation, but all the traces of the coming great Mahler are there. This version of the piece still originates from a time, where Mahler perceived the first and second symphonies to be part of a single program: The hero awakens and fights in the first symphony, dying in the final bar with an abrupt d-minor finish. The second symphony begins with the obituary and funeral, to end in a grand resurrection in the final movements.
The orchestration of the Totenfeier is clearly from a young Mahler, who was still sightly unsure of his style. The melodies are not quite as clear, and where they exist they are generally more Wagnerian than in the final symphony version. That is to say, rather less striking and clear. The textures are smoother in texture and the expression is not as precise and defined. Particularly the woodwinds, whom Mahler afforded beautiful melodies time and time again, are still rather overshadowed by basses and brass in this piece. But still, it is an interesting listen, rather like listening to a really early Wagner opera or an early edition of a Bruckner symphony. The piece and the composer are in development, and some interesting diversions from the original symphony make for various surprises.
Yannick attacks this piece with an orchestra that has changed since he last conducted it. Lahav Shani has given the orchestra a new sense of transparency and has pushed the pure, beautiful sound to the back. Yannick does not try to fight this, but instead exposes several sections of the orchestra as good as the orchestration allows him to. The violins are more concise and less focussed on sonority, the orchestra itself is rather a more transparent group rather than a mass floating on a great see of sound. And yet, this Mahler performance overwhelms through its effective connotations to the developed original and the sheer force that the orchestra and Yannick can muster to bring it to life.
After the interval we hear Shostakovich’s rarely played Symphony No. 13. Yannick has been playing this symphony a lot in recent years, including bringing it back to the Berliner Philharmoniker after over 20 years of absence from the Berliner’s desks. Long banned in Soviet Russia, the symphony is based on a poem sung by a men’s choir and solo detailing the atrocious massacre conducted by the Nazis against the Jewish population of the Ukraine in the ravine of Babi-Jar in September of 1941.
Few symphonies I have ever heard have given me such a profound sense of humanity. So many great symphonies and classical works are so overtly artistic: Enveloped in their state of mind, with an emotional commitment that strikes you down and commands you to stay down. From the overwhelming sense of destiny in a Beethoven 5 or a Tchaikovsky 5 to the pictures of despair in late Mahler and beauty in late Bruckner. But human transitions within music are rare, few composers have ever given their works this kind of complexity. Mozart (40th in g-minor), Mahler (Third), Schoenberg (Gurrelieder) and Shostakovich are the only examples that come to mind. These are pieces, where the composers have sketched human development in music.
This piece is extraordinary and is played sinfully little. From the strong, confronting lament of the first movement, the deeply ironic humour of the second, the mourning compassion of the third, and the bright and chilling fear of the fourth, we see Shostakovich dealing with one of the great unsung tragedies of his time. The extraordinary texts describes simple scenes of life among the devastation, as one might see in some of the great holocaust books of our time by Vasily Grosman, Tadeusz Borowski and Svetlana Alexievich. Women standing in line for the shop, their faces expressions.
And then comes the fifth movement, a truly noble end. Instead of leaving it all in silence, Shostakovich leaves the darkness behind, and opens the music up into major. After the great bangs and lamentations from orchestra and singers alike, the quiet, subdued, introvert and hence purely human pizzicato passage feels like a desperate shock. Like hearing Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin directly after Ligeti’s Atmospheres. We listeners had almost forgotten that this sound world could even exist in the last two hours of darkness and death. A timid theme in major relieves us and literally opens up the heavens of sound. A finale that in its human positivity is only comparable to that of Gurrelieder.
Shostakovich names this final movement “Career,” which is a lot more noble here than it usually sounds. Career as a life to look back on, full of memory and achievement, emotion and compassion, failure and success. And this final major theme is a message to all of us listeners from Shostakovich: “You have heard the lament, you have heard tears and cries of those experiencing the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. Now, I leave you in major, to take these memories and insert them into your own life, ensuring a future that never repeats.” Shostakovich did not actually say that, but the musical message is as clear as if it was etched into our skin.
This performance lives and breathes through Mikhail Petrenko. This great Russian bass sings the solo voice, leading the choir, sometimes also replying in dialogue. Petrenko has sung this piece many times before, and acts it out as though it were an operatic part. Through careful accentuations and acting emphases that only come through long experience with the text, Petrenko breathes every word. Without him and his passion of this piece and this text, the performance would not work. That is really all one can say.
Petrenko is accompanied by the excellent Bavarian Radio Choir. The deep basses are lined up in a significant number and (also having sung this piece before with Yannick) feature excellent Russian pronunciation for a German choir. They accompany the symphony with a strength that is never overshadowed by the orchestra and that conveys the endless fears, laments and dark jabs of the first movements with great sincerity and chilling honesty.
And then there is the orchestra. Shostakovich being Shostakovich, he has still written some outstanding solo opportunities for the musicians, including a remarkable Tuba solo in g-minor at the beginning of the fourth movement and various illustrious solos for everything from the bass clarinet to the piccolo flute and percussion. The piece ends with bells and celesta, bringing a final, ominous new dimension of the sound. All is executed flawlessly by the Rotterdam Philharmonic, eager to give their former chief conductor a joyous return. Yannik Eisenaecher 22nd March 2019
Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics