Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sibelius and Shostakovich

Last night I attended the Chicago Symphony Orchestra where guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in a concert that included both Jean Sibelius' Fourth Symphony and Dimitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. The Sibelius work, premiered in Helsinki in 1911, is a mostly bleak and lean composition which demonstrates Sibelius ability to connect thematically his larger works. Modern sounding even today, the original audiences reacted negatively with remarks that the symphony was "ultramodern". To the twenty-first century ear the modernity has faded but not disappeared and it is tempered with pastoral melodies and harmonies that are somewhat neo-romantic compared to contemporary fare.

The piece de resistance of the evening was the second half performance of Shostakovich's great Fifth Symphony in d minor. Written almost thirty years after the Sibelius in 1937, it represents Shostakovich's attempt to redeem himself with the Stalin government that had banned his Fourth Symphony and relegated him to their list of heretics and outsiders. Fortunately, for the composer and the musical world, his work received official approval, and audiences have subsequently made it a favorite of twentieth-century symphonic literature. The opening movement is heroic and is followed by a truly "joking" scherzo. A third movement of passionate emotional strength leads to a finale that is magnificent and uplifting throughout.
I first heard this Symphony about forty years ago and it immediately became one of my favorites. The Chicago Symphony's performance last night reminded why it remains a favorite.

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