Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar” is a brave choice for an OSM season opener. Cast in five movements, it runs the gamut from sorrowful to scornful, confines itself vocally to males and makes many of its musical points at a sustained fortissimo. The Yevgeny Yevtushenko text refers to a Nazi massacre. The hourlong-plus experience can be onerous for a gala crowd, unless the performance is as inspired as it was under Kent Nagano Tuesday night in the Maison symphonique.
It is hard to describe in words the mix of horror, irony and humanity that the composer calibrates so exactly in music. Babushkas lining up at a grocery store might seem suspect material for great art, but the quietly resonant OSM lower strings seemed to embody the soul of the people as well as the quotidian tasks at hand. The huge climax toward the end of this Adagio was entirely coherent as a tapestry of sound. It is indicative of the authenticity of Shostakovich’s egalitarian impulses that his tribute to the women of Soviet Union is expressed so convincingly by men alone.
The stellar quality of the OSM Chorus as prepared by Andrew Megill was apparent in the opening movement, in which Yevtushenko’s condemnation of anti-Semitism – no less in the Soviet Union than elsewhere – is most explicit. A bass of remarkable richness and intensity, Moscow-born Alexander Vinogradov was able to add a touch of soft idealism to his tone in the sequence evoking Anne Frank.
Soloist, chorus and orchestra were exactly coordinated, a situation we could attribute both to the dedication of the participants and Nagano’s thorough comprehension of the score. The Scherzo (in which personified Humour finds his severed head stuck on a pike) was both ghastly and rhythmically vibrant, while the Largo communicated the fear of life under the regime with original orchestral colours (including a tuba solo) that were fascinating in their own right.
This symphony (which can fairly be called a cantata) has its mysteries. The concluding line – “I pursue my career by not pursuing it!” – certainly offers food for thought. Nevertheless, the exquisite instrumental fadeaway left room for hope. It was a message that Nagano had obviously communicated to the performers.
Colourful and incisive but never coarse, the OSM has a long history of success in Shostakovich, with a discography to prove it. It is good to see that Nagano and the orchestra will be reviving the Thirteenth in March in Carnegie Hall. Vinogradov, happily, has signed on as soloist. Men from the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) will do the choral honours. They will have to sing well to equal the OSM Chorus.
The repeat on Wednesday includes Schoenberg’s Six Pieces for men’s chorus Op. 35 as well as Rachmaninoff’s familiar Rhapsody on Theme of Paganini. On Tuesday the no-intermission program started with in an upfront and well-articulated performance of the latter by the Russian pianist Denis Matsuev. Finding a companion piece for the Shostakovich is not easy. I am not quite sure that this was it.
The “repeat on Wednesday” referred to near the end of this review did not go quite according to plan. After intermission there was an announcement over the public address system that the bass soloist, Alexander Vinogradov, would be singing despite an indisposition.
Fair enough. “Announcing” is far from unknown in the opera and concert world.
A few minutes into Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, the music stopped. Vinogradov could not continue. He and Kent Nagano quietly exited the stage while the audience speculated on whether they would be having an early night.
Then Nagano reemerged to announce that the show would go on without the soloist – the music for orchestra and chorus being strong enough to sustain itself. “He said something about an allergy,” according to Ruth Gesser, an OSM subscriber. “And also that this was the foremost soloist [for this music]and we could not have anyone else sing.”
Opera companies often have understudies at the ready. In the symphony realm, especially in big cities, a substitute for a standard concerto is usually a taxi ride away. Many Montreal pianists could have filled in at the last minute for Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which was also part of the program.
Shostakovich’s Thirteenth is another matter. But there was a Russian bass in town who had performed the part: Denis Sedov, playing the role of Prince Gremin in the Opéra de Montréal production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Whether Sedov would have accepted the assignment is unknown. Another option would have been to ask an enterprising member of the OSM Chorus to step in and do what he could.
At any rate, the audience responded positively to the music-minus-one performance.
“I didn’t miss the bass soloist because I don’t know what I was missing,” comments former Montreal Gazette theatre and book critic Pat Donnelly, who was at the concert. “I thought it was beautiful anyway.”