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Review: Jaap's Shostakovich 5

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 9:04pm

Jaap's Shostakovich 5

Hong Kong Philharmonic HK Cultural Centre Concert Hall


Reviewed: December 13

Shostakovich's Symphony No 5, written under pressure from Soviet authorities, conveyed anguish without words. The acid, curdled mood was unmistakable under conductor Jaap van Zweden's precise direction. In musical language - minor keys; altered intervals; brittle brass and xylophone; and heavy unison declamations - Shostakovich represented the Stalinist Russia of the 1930s. Triumphant moments were ironic in this dark context. The only mystery is how the composer convinced officials this was optimistic music.

The orchestra played with thrilling intensity. After a nod to the audience, Van Zweden (left) whirled on his heel to begin the angular first theme in the strings. These fragments settled into a floating tune over harp chords then built to a ferocious climax. In a peaceful summation of ideas, duets with flute and horn, clarinet and flute then bassoon and oboe were superb.

The second movement is a scherzo with twisted cadences and off-centre waltz time. The pizzicato section was fun. The tragic largo began with strings in motet-like counterpoint. A passage for two flutes and harp was gorgeous. The final chord was as transparent as a dream. That dream was shattered in the allegro non troppo.

Shostakovich works in colour blocks and his big tune with brass offbeats was terrifying. The finale was glorious but fake, truly a depiction of pompous officials.

As impressive as Shostakovich's mastery was, Beethoven was a welcome contrast. His Violin Concerto in D major is radiant, with much of it in the birdsong range high on the A and E strings. Ning Feng delighted listeners with a flawless crystalline sound. The orchestral balance was enchanting, with every note audible to the last viola quaver.

The hushed timpani opening recurs throughout the piece in clever variations. Van Zweden sculpted crescendos with discipline and patience, highlighting Beethoven's drama. There were breathtaking transitions as the soloist held a note and the orchestra shifted to a new harmony.

Ning did not disappoint in the cadenza with its trickily layered melody and triplet accompaniment.

In the larghetto Beethoven starts haltingly, resisting the musical flow. The soloist embellished and commented. Later he crooned the theme in the sweetest violin register. The clarinet added a magical touch. In the rondo (allegro), a minor-key gypsy theme let the bassoon shine. This movement had a furious cadenza in double stops.

During the quiet but astonishing encore, a transcription of the guitar solo Recuerdos de la Alhambra, Ning created a circle of intimacy, as if we were just sitting on his sofa at home, for the transfixed audience.

Alexis Alrich


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