The Russian State Symphony under the able baton of Vladimir Jurowski opened their Konzerthaus appearance Monday evening with Die Eisengießerei (The Iron Foundry) by repressed Russian composer Vsevolod Zaderatsky (1891-1953). Blacklisted for most of his life and twice imprisoned by the Soviet regime, what remains of Zaderatsky’s compositional work which was not destroyed is now being championed by his son and namesake, currently professor at the Moscow Conservatory. The work in question is built in chunks of repetitious motifs, layered and heavy in terms of brass and percussion use. It emulates effectively the loud, relentless nature of monolithic machines, and leaves one feeling exhausted. It won’t make anyone’s Spotify playlist, but I am glad to have heard it once and know it exists.

Vladimir Jurowski © Matthias Creutziger
Vladimir Jurowski
© Matthias Creutziger

Things got more refined with the appearance of pianist Leif Ove Andsnes to perform Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G minor, the least well-known of the four. After emigrating from Russia after the October Revolution in 1917 and enjoying great success in the USA, the Fourth, whilst already started, was not finished until 1926. Appearing after a compositional lull, it was different enough to be scathingly received. Gone are the sweeping, eternal lines, memorable melodies and thick scoring. The Fourth is varied and subtle and more thinly scored than the Second or Third, shifting from idea to idea so quickly that it was condemned as trivial and salon-like by his critics. A New York Evening Telegram critic clearly saw it not as progressive, but diminutive, writing that “Mme Cécile Chaminade might safely have perpetrated it on her third glass of vodka”.

Andnes mastered the virtuosic work with remarkable ease. His attention to sound was beautiful and varied, and he filled the corners of each tone regardless of dynamic level or style of attack. It was a pleasure to listen to him, particularly within the introspective second movement, which was a dream. At the close of his performance one could have heard a pin drop, and Andnes was called to the stage repeatedly, graciously offering a Sibelius Romance as an encore.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s relationship to his homeland is the most ambiguous, and the middle child of his planned trio of “War Symphonies”, the Eighth is an interesting study. Though nearly as long as his epic, popular Seventh Symphony, the hour-long work was not nearly so well-received, due to its incredibly dark, melancholy tone. Composed in 1843, the tide of the war had turned after the Red Army’s success at Stalingrad and the powers that be were expecting something triumphantly heroic. The Eighth, however is a different animal altogether. The regime entitled the work “Stalingrad” and publicly claimed it to be an homage to the many fallen in the battle, but privately it was condemned and is still not performed nearly so widely as his more popular symphonies.

This fact notwithstanding, the Eighth is one of Shostakovich’s most amazing symphonic scores, and while the morbid fatalism which permeates it keeps it from being daily fare, the moments of sunshine, dance and light which creep through are all the more beautiful and heartbreaking for their sparsity. The first movement, by far the longest, prepares plentiful motivic material which reappears later. After a dark, low-string opening, the melancholy, cheerless tone of faint violins was absolutely breathtaking. There were many moments of tremendous, heartbreaking beauty in this performance, thanks largely to the precise work and thorough conception of Jurowski and the Russian State Symphony.

The second movement, an Allegretto with a scherzo feel is brash and marcato, the trio section featuring wonderful solo work from the bassoon and piccolo, playfully blending raucous dissonance with dance-like elements. The third movement, built on relentless quarter-note movement in the lower registers, is noisy and dark, combining elements of bi-tonality, intensely chromatic harmonic movement and straightforward tonality. This melts into the passacaglia of the fourth movement, which again featured both beautiful, almost improvisatory solo work (fabulous trills and flutter-tonguing, flutes!) as well as heartbreaking piano tones and textures within the strict form. The final movement is not the heroic, bombastic finale expected of Shostakovich, but instead looks very much inward. Large sections felt like chamber music, featuring solo voices alone and in pairs, trios and quartets, with much of the motivic material of the opening movement reappearing. Despite the beautiful resolution and hopefulness of the end, the ultimate feeling at the close is not joy, but resignation. If this symphony is indeed meant to be a depiction of a battle, the protagonist has not conquered mightily, but has indeed survived.