The idea that war is hell is certainly not a new one. The quote is originally credited to William Tecumseh Sherman, but the idea has been a source of inspiration for countless socially conscious artists of varying mediums. Shostakovich may or may not have had knowledge of this general of the American Civil War, but he was no stranger to the atrocities caused by war. His Seventh Symphony represents a musical depiction of his struggles with witnessing war, and the CSO’s recent performance of it was a vivid realization of this foreboding motto.

Jaap van Zweden © Marco Borggreve
Jaap van Zweden
© Marco Borggreve

This performance is one of three unique concerts in a three-week series offered by the CSO entitled “Truth to Power”. These concerts exclusively feature the works of Shostakovich, Britten, and Prokofiev, and they are united by the political contexts surrounding their creation. As noted in an essay written by Princeton University professor Simon Morrison from the concert’s program, the themes found in these pieces remain strongly connected to the world as it stands today. The series is an effective means of providing relevance to established repertoire, and it allows the music to transcend its performance.

The biggest obstacle for this concert was the music itself. Britten opened the performance with good motion through a series of five instrumental vignettes from Peter Grimes that complemented each other superbly, but the Shostakovich, clocking in at 80 minutes, carried with it a lot of dead weight. Frankly, Shostakovich's Seventh is not the most engaging work. At best, it is perpetually and overwhelmingly morose; at worst, it is just boring. The third and fourth movements are particularly guilty of this with their seemingly never-ending supply of minor/modal violin melodies played against drones or counterlines in the low strings, but even the extended crescendo of the first movement’s march loses much of its impact through its blunt repetition (Bartók and Schoenberg were among the notable critics of the Seventh after its first US broadcast). Shostakovich accounted for these dulling effects by claiming that they were his reactions to the effects of war, but that does not change their purely musical effects.

What made this particular performance work in spite of this was the CSO’s expressive range, which helped to heighten the few moments of intensity throughout the piece. The two strongest examples of this came at the climaxes of the first and fourth movements, though they were both achieved in stark contrast to one another. The first movement’s climax arrives after the nine minute march finally explodes, while that of the final movement emerges rather abruptly after an extended period of wandering counterpoint in the strings. The brightness and remarkable balance of these densely orchestrated passages gave them the impact they so desperately needed.

The brass section possessed an especially diverse palette of sound colors throughout the concert. Their collective brightness and brilliance were the defining aspects of these climactic moments, but there were a number of spots where they demonstrated surprising darkness and warmth. The best example of this occurred in the opening extracted interlude from the Britten, which pitted a glassy high string and woodwind theme against a rich, smooth brass chorale. For a section that is often used one dimensionally in CSO performances, it was nice to see this world-class brass section show off its depth.

There were also numerous opportunities for individuals to shine in both pieces, and the collective effort of the evening’s soloists proved to be a highlight. Shostakovich’s sparse melodic writing created several exposed sections, and Eugene Izotov’s enchanting oboe was certainly a standout. Perhaps the finest individual performance, though, came from violist Li-Kuo Chang, whose impassioned solo served as the emotional core to the Britten’s closing Passacaglia. Aside from a few noticeable phasing issues towards the beginning of the Shostakovich march, the individual efforts were largely stellar throughout.

In regard to ensemble playing, the strongest aspect was the orchestra’s attention to balance and clarity, particularly during dense passages. Even during full ensemble passages, conductor Jaap van Zweden frequently coaxed an impeccably balanced sound that allowed listeners to clearly hear each distinct part. The basses were the biggest benefactors of this, as many of their melodic lines shined through to reveal their strong section phrasing.

From a compositional standpoint, Shostakovich would have benefited from a liberal editor, as his musical ideas were fine in a vacuum yet substantially overblown when taken as a whole. Still, this contributed metastructurally to the notion that war is hell, and the CSO’s stunning range of color in their performance greatly improved the quality of overwrought sections (especially the march) and intensified the gap between the mundane and the climactic.