Lahav SHANI and Daniel BARENBOIM at de Doelen, Rotterdam

Under its two previous chief conductors, Valery Gergiev and Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra has secretly blossomed into one of the best romantic orchestras of Europe. Now, as “Yannick,” as he was affectionately called in Rotterdam, has left to steer the Met out of muddy waters, a new rising star has taken up the baton: Lahav Shani, who was just this spring tipped to succeed Zubin Mehta at the Israel Philharmonic. That is certainly not just any job. Shani is being watched by orchestras across Europe, including the very best at the very top of the classical Mount Olympus.

To give himself the best start in Rotterdam, Shani has gone all out and mobilised as many stars as possible to give his first season the most positive of spins: Kirill Gerstein, Nathalie Stutzmann, Alisa Weilerstein, Pinchas Zukerman, the list goes on and on. Some of the world’s best soloists will be coming to Rotterdam this season, but the arguably biggest attraction came to help introduce Shani to the Rotterdam audience: Maestro Daniel Barenboim himself; musician, humanist and philosopher extraordinaire comes to Rotterdam, modestly playing the solo part in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C-minor. After the interval, Shani treats the packed audience at De Doelen to his interpretation of Shostakovich’s Fifth, another bring-down-the-house-classic. I am hearing Shani for the first time tonight.

The program begins, as is sadly so often in Rotterdam (also for Yannick’s farewell and the Gergiev Festival opening) with an image film and a rather bland speech. In my opinion, no matter how important the occasion, this disrupts the mood before the concert and destroys that indelible sombre calmness that is undoubtedly necessary to adequately contemplate and appreciate such works as the Beethoven. Thankfully, it’s over quickly tonight. Let’s get to the music. Orthel’s Scherzo No. 2 opens the program, something between Ben Hur and Robin Hood music with an added bit of Wagnerian sound-tuning and Mahlerian dramatism. Shani and his musicians master this musical task without leaving any doubts, but it does seem a slightly weird choice to begin the program with, when Beethoven and Shostakovich are following.

Whatever the reasons for this choice, the greatness comes in tidal waves when Daniel Barenboim enters the podium and the Beethoven begins. Having made his stage debut in 1952 at only age 10 (a solo piano recital in Salzburg), he has 66 years of concert experience to draw from in his interpretation of one of the greatest piano concertos ever written. Beethoven’s C-minor concerto is the only minor-concerto he ever composed across all instruments and features a sound-world that departs from the merry musical language of Mozart and Haydn to foreshadow something different, something darker and passionate, that would develop into Beethoven’s own Ninth Symphony, as well as early Schubert and Weber. It is a concerto that points towards a new musical future.

How would a veteran Beethovenian like Barenboim and his young musical protégée Lahav Shani (Shani has referred to Barenboim as his “musical father”) tackle this astounding work? Both combine their interpretational wizardry to produce one of the most exciting Beethoven interpretations to date. Barenboim is clearly following Shani’s lead, since he has adopted a different playing style, entirely different from the Debussy that I heard from him in two concerts earlier this year. His (custom made) piano is trimmed for a much lighter sound, the sound pallet is less murky and more definite, absolute. His touch is also more defined, Barenboim is aware that for Beethoven, the unclear, obscure and otherworldly sound-complex of his Debussy interpretations does not work as well. His Beethoven seems to come from an altogether different universe, as Barenboim easily masters all technical challenges and excites with cadenzas that dazzle in their emphasis on counterpoint and pure harmonic wizardry. Barenboim does not need to play at top speed like Paganini or Liszt, but he instead treats the music with a dignity and brilliance that perhaps truly only experience can bring. It is a stunning evening of brilliant playing that, despite the minor key, screams emotion and jubilation to the heavens.

This is full in line with Shani’s handling of the orchestra. While comparatively large for a Beethoven orchestra these days, Shani looks for a medium between sound and accuracy. While this is only the beginning of Shani’s tenure, and with it being clear that he will still have to work on the cohesion in the high strings to come to perfection for a piece such as the Beethoven, there is already an astounding understanding of interpretations between the orchestra and conductor. Shani’s Beethoven is excitingly phrased, lightly articulated and modern in the way that Frank Gehry’s architecture is modern today: Combining modern views with traditional values of culture. The sound that Shani draws out of the strings reminds of the traditional German red carpet for Beethoven, but he combines it with an irresistible presence of the woodwinds and sparing, but brilliant use of the Timpani. He challenges the listener, inserting into the corner movements exciting rubati where we never heard them before, with the security of someone who had been conducting this piece for decades and was now, with the benefit of experience, looking for something new. This Beethoven leaves you breathless, I hope that we will hear more of Shani’s Beethoven in the future.

I find that the phenomenon of a great solo concerto eclipsing the symphony in the second half occurs more and more often these days. Not that I’m complaining, but it does make for an interesting mental arc during a concert. The cooperation between Shani and Barenboim on Beethoven was singular. Now, with Shostakovich 5, Shani has a completely different take on a completely different piece music. Instead of yielding to passion and spontaneity, Shani carefully constructs this piece as though it were Bruckner. Never using too much orchestral juice, every movement is a carefully choreographed climax, with energy being withheld until the last possible moment. While this piece is not necessarily intended for that (climaxes come much earlier in movements than they do with Bruckner), Shostakovich becomes more subdued, nuanced, sound-based and, indeed, interesting. This is a thoughtful interpretation, where Shani takes care to never overshoot his intended target. This makes for an enchanting slow third movement, especially when Shani grips the reins tight on the high strings. The Scherzo is perhaps the only movement tonight that seems slightly disorganised and Shani’s concept of withheld passion does not completely do justice to the raucous music. But all of this is made up for in the stunning march in the final movement, where Shani also slows down, giving us time to contemplate how real this jubilation is, how much fear is in those trumpet fanfares, and painting a stunning picture of Stalin menacingly breathing down Shostakovich’s neck.

It was a stunning first evening for Lahav Shani in Rotterdam, we are in for some star-studded and highly intellectual music making.

Yannik Eisenaecher, 30th  September 2018

Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics