The Wiener Symphoniker was in wonderful form this week, performing Beethoven and Shostakovich at the Musikverein. Led by guest conductor Manfred Honeck, an Austrian native who has been music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for the past decade, the ensemble played with energy and sensitivity, particularly throughout their performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto with Igor Levit. This was my first time hearing the soloist, but it will certainly not be the last. After exploding onto the scene, Levit has been much in demand touring the globe, and for good reason. His clarity of touch and pearly pianissimi make him an instant standout. He has trills for days as well as a refreshingly low-key, no-drama approach; he lets the music do the talking. If Beethoven referred to his own compositional approach as “redend” (speaking), then Levit speaks him clearly, beautifully and fluently.

Igor Levit © Gregor Hohenberg
Igor Levit
© Gregor Hohenberg

From the mini-cadenza which opens the concerto and throughout the triumphantly martial first movement, Levit’s energy and control never flagged. The second movement was dreamily intimate, and in the third he proved able to contend with the full volume of Symphoniker when required. I cannot remember the last time I have heard this concerto performed with such attentive perfection. Honeck coaxed the orchestra into matching Levit’s dynamic demands for the most part, weaving their sounds together seamlessly to wonderful effect. The audience clamored for an encore, and Levit offered a haunting rendition of Schubert’s Allegretto in C minor, D.915.

Shostakovich’s dark Fifth Symphony followed, a work with a reception history as divergent as the many musical influences which it contains. The initial reading of the work as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism” purported by Stalinist propagandists allowed for the symphony to enjoy immediate success and at its first performance the ovations reported lasted for over an hour. Many at the time, however, heard a more politically subversive message, something Shostakovich himself later confirmed, referring to the grotesquely “forced rejoicing” of an oppressed people as being the motivation behind the Fifth.

The fact that Shostakovich wrote the unrelenting, march-like finale after learning that his sister had been deported to Siberia and her brother jailed lends plausibility to this interpretation. Despite the appearance of being a raucously triumphant celebration, the effect of the finale is decidedly distorted. Likewise, the jagged motifs of the first movement, starkly dotted rhythms and thick chromaticism are all about war, marches, sighs and human struggle. The second movement is like a grotesque, brilliant carnival with snatches of beauty continuously distorted, and the Largo which follows is unbearably tragic.

Honeck’s interpretation fell in line with this modern reading of the symphony. Instead of pushing the orchestra to a massive accelerando to close, he allowed the pain and struggle of the finale to unfold organically and the audience to live with it, which is itself heartbreaking. The Symphoniker was solid in its ensemble and principals wonderful in their solo work. Though I was more moved in general by their Beethoven interpretation, the Shostakovich did not disappoint, and ended the concert on a wrenchingly cathartic note.