Friday evening’s concert at Symphony Center was a homecoming of sorts on two accounts: it was the Chicago Symphony’s first on home turf since returning from an extended tour of East Asia, and it marked the end of Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s 17-year absence, formerly one the CSO’s frequent guest conductors. There was also a subtle farewell in play as the evening’s program books were the first to no longer list Pierre Boulez as the CSO’s conductor emeritus.  Just shy of 85, Rozhdestvensky was as vital as ever and certainly in his element in this all Shostakovich program, juxtaposing the composer’s first and final symphonic efforts that bookend nearly half a century of compositional development.

Gennady Rozhdestvensky © Wladimir Polak
Gennady Rozhdestvensky
© Wladimir Polak

Even for composers who count amongst the ranks of the great symphonists, their first symphony often sounds derivative, but such is not the case for Shostakovich. The Symphony no. 1 in F minor, Op.10, written in 1925 as a graduation thesis at the St Petersburg Conservatory when the composer was just 18, is unmistakably his own. Handled with a remarkable self-assurance, it is a product of the avant-garde heyday of the 1920s, expressionist and ripe with the parody that would characterize so much of his output. 

Christopher Martin initiated matters with a sarcastic gesture in the muted trumpet, soon answered by a noteworthy solo from clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, and a march theme in the strings characterized much of the movement. The piano featured prominently in the humorous scherzo, leading up to a sequence of volcanic outbursts commanded by Mary Sauer. Sweetly dissonant sounds in the oboe herald the slow movement, augmented by Robert Chen’s wistful violin solo. This led to a climax in the brass, and echoes of the timbre of the opening with the return of the muted trumpet. There were times when entrances weren’t entirely in sync, perhaps this was due to jetlag from the tour, but Rozhdestvensky’s expert direction kept things moving forward with direction and precision. The snare drum opens the finale, a forceful whirlwind of orchestral color. In 1925, there couldn’t have been any doubt that this student was destined for an extraordinary career.

The second half fast-forwarded the audience to 1971 with the Symphony no. 15 in A major.  Not only was this his last symphony, but one of the last pieces of music he was to write. To say the intervening years were eventful in Shostakovich’s life would be a colossal understatement, and the Fifteenth Symphony is very much product of that – but in subtle, understated ways. With its sparse, chamber-like textures and straightforward melodies, the First and Fifteenth are not as disparate on the surface as one might anticipate, but filled with allusions to other works – some obvious, others oblique – this is the work of an august composer reflecting back on a lifetime of both tumult and triumph.

A simple, almost child-like melody in the flute opens the work which soon gives way to a sardonic statement of Rossini’s overture to William Tell. In some ways this recalls the theater music he wrote so prolifically in his younger days. A unique percussion battery, including the snare drum being struck on the metal rim, created an idiosyncratic soundworld. These are effects he first experimented with in Fourth, and perhaps this is meant to be a reflection in hindsight of the political turmoil concurrent with that watershed work.

The extended second movement opened with a lugubrious chorale in the low brass. John Sharp’s 12-tone cello solo desperately searched for answers in this pervasive state of unease. Most striking was Jay Friedman’s funereal trombone solo, adding another layer to the desolate dreamworld. The brief third movement is dance-like, almost a waltz, but as diabolical and grotesque as anything he wrote.

The final chapter begins with an obvious invocation of the fate motive from Wagner’s Die Walküre, echoed by Siegfried’s cataclysmic funeral march from Götterdämmerung, reduced to the skeletal remains of just the rhythm. An incipit of the opening from Tristan und Isolde followed and served to introduce a folksong-like theme. The allusions in this movement are innumerable, flowing from the composer’s pen almost stream of consciousness in this singular expansive paragraph. Under Rozhdestvensky, it never sounded meandering as he adroitly guided the orchestra through this phantasmagoric labyrinth, leading up to the mysterious ending in which all but the eerie percussion has evaporated as Shostakovich chose not to end his monumental cycle of symphonies in resolution, but in unresolved enigma.