The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a program Thursday evening devoted to composers whose music was suppressed in the 1930s by Nazi Germany, either because they were of Jewish heritage or their works were labeled “degenerate” (“Entartete”). Guest conductor Michael Christie led the orchestra, and pianist Behzod Abduraimov was the featured soloist.
Included were classical favorites Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Schubert, plus two modern composers, Marcel Tyberg and Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who were both persecuted by the Nazis. Tyberg was arrested and died in Auschwitz, while Weinberg escaped to the Soviet Union, where he gained the support of Dimitri Shostakovich but also suffered the ethnic suppression of Stalinism.
The concert opened with Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, which earned the nickname “Unfinished” because only two movements were completed by the composer. Almost universally, it is performed as Schubert left it, although there have been multiple attempts to finish it.
Christie, the acclaimed music director of the Phoenix Symphony, chose to perform a version that was completed by Tyberg in the late 1920s. He composed a third movement, a Scherzo based upon sketches left by Schubert, and a fourth movement entirely his own, made up out of whole cloth.
With regard to performance of Schubert’s original movements, the opening Allegro moderato movement was taken at a more stately pace than what audiences might be used to. The second movement, marked Andante con moto, seemed a little too “con moto” overall, though there were moments when it seemed almost to stall.
In Tyberg’s Scherzo third movement, the performance felt a bit thumpy and its Trio passages could have benefited from a more relaxed tempo. Even without seeing the score, it was very easy to imagine a level of musicality that the performance could have reached but simply didn’t. Tyberg’s Finale, marked Allegro vivace, was taken at a pace that didn’t feel vivace. And like the Scherzo, it immediately implied much more musical promise than was attained by Christie.
All in all, the performance of the symphony fell short, never able to find a satisfying groove, at least for this listener. It felt as if conductor and orchestra weren’t fully connecting with each other.
Tyberg’s completion of Schubert’s work isn’t bad at all, though like others it is unlikely to persuade the classical mainstream to abandon the standard two-movement approach. We know that the Venus di Milo originally had arms, but we are so accustomed to the armless torso that the idea of giving it new extremities seems more artifice than art.
By contrast, Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 fared much better, thanks mostly to the evening’s soloist, 21-year-old Uzbekian pianist Behzod Abduraimov. He is a well-welcomed rarity: a young artist whose virtuosity does not depend solely upon velocity or power. It is observable, by both eye and ear, that Abduraimov, a pianist of sensitivity and sensibility, listens to the orchestra. Technique he has, but also the phrasing, musical detail and emotional engagement that makes music more than mere notes.
Abduraimov took time to autograph his debut recital CD for audience members in the lobby. Released on the Decca label only two days before the concert, the disc includes music for solo piano by Prokofiev, Liszt and Saint-Saëns.
Weinberg’s “Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes” is a 12-minute work that’s largely a barn-burning Klezmerfest. Its themes are indeed Moldavian, but from the Jewish culture of the region. The original title was “Rhapsody on Jewish Themes,” but Weinberg lived in Stalinist Russia at the time, so he changed the name to avoid critical attention from authorities.
The episodic rhapsody displays a range of emotions, from introspective pathos to the vivacious flavors of Eastern European folk dance. Christie and orchestra performed it with the enthusiastic energy that befits a showpiece closer.
The concert will be repeated tonight and Saturday.