This was the second concert in the series A Salute to Slava in which the National Symphony Orchestra celebrates what would have been the 90th birthday of their most celebrated former music director, Mstislav Rostropovich. Tonight’s pairing of works, in homage to the maestro was particularly apt. Both Mieczysław Weinberg  and Dmitri Shostakovich were friends; Weinberg considered his relationship with him in filial or fraternal terms, acknowledging him to be “of my flesh and blood”. Nonetheless, the reputation of the two has been highly differentiated. Happily, the concert-going world is rediscovering Weinberg, after decades of forgetfulness.

Christoph Eschenbach © Luca Piva
Christoph Eschenbach
© Luca Piva

Rather, perhaps I should say discovering for the first time as his oeuvre is almost totally unfamiliar to most. Indeed, this was the first time that the NSO had played any Weinberg composition at all. The Violin Concerto in G major, Op.67 certainly whets one’s appetite for more. The first movement is angular and aggressive, and the orchestra went on the attack with some vigour, making some powerful fortissimo statements along the way. Gidon Kremer did not quite follow suit, lacking something of the necessary attack. The ethereal passages were somewhat too corporeal, and one longed for a more luminous tone in those occasional intervals of lyricism in what was otherwise quite a fierce movement.

The middle two movements, the Allegretto and Adagio, showed off Kremer’s strengths more. There was playing of delicacy and feeling, and a contemplative anguish that was sincerely conveyed. The last movement Allegro risoluto led off with a great orchestral thump, but once again, one felt that Kremer didn’t quite summon up the necessary energy to join in, coming across as overly-introspective. Giving the impression of being alone in the world with one’s violin did not make for the most convincing interpretation of this intense and vociferous work.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 8 in C minor was written in the pressurized circumstances of World War II. To meet Soviet expectations for inspiring music and to keep faithful to his own inner genius added to the pressure, and we feel something of this crushing intensity throughout this massive work. Tonight, under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach, we were privileged to hear a performance which reflected this massive intensity and relentless urgency.

Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich © Wikicommons
Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich
© Wikicommons

Throughout, the orchestra conveyed this tormented, sinewy symphony with energy, passion and (despite the length) consistency. There were carefully developed crescendos, hauntingly spare textures, terrifying snare and bass drum rolls, and shatteringly huge climaxes of sound. These were extraordinary shuddering monuments of sound, absolutely fearsome. The sense of bombast always seems ironic in Shostakovich’s work, as if he is paying lip service to Soviet monumentalism and cocking a snook at it at the same time: the ambiguity was fully apparent in this rendition. In the rhythmically motoric third movement, everything felt slightly on the edge of anarchy and disorder – a sense that was entirely faithful to the context in which the work was written.

The symphony ends not on transfiguration but in a sort of still death, and this peculiarly dispiriting end was magnificently handled. Although the pace was certainly slower than many versions I’ve heard, the emotional integrity was impressive. In March, the NSO will travel to Russia, as part of the festivities in honor of Rostropovich, where they will play the Eighth in its original homeland.

***11