On Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented a concert of music by Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, led by guest conductor Edo de Waart that featured violinist Augustin Hadelich as guest soloist. The program will be repeated on Saturday evening at Symphony Hall.
Hadelich made his highly successful ASO debut back in 2011, playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. His most recent performances with the orchestra were in 2014, when he played Paganini’s Violin Concerto, and again in 2016 with the Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor. He opened Thursday’s concert with de Waart and the ASO as soloist in the challenging Violin Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Hadelich plays the 1723 “ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivari violin, an instrument on loan from Clement and Karen Arrison through the Stradivari Society of Chicago. Although the “Kiesewetter” is listed in the Hill, Doring and Goodkind books under the year 1731, the style of work and choice of maple for the back point more toward the year 1723. The “Kiesewetter” is a particularly fine-sounding concert instrument.
In an interview last year with Strings magazine, Hadelich described the “ex-Kiesewetter” as being “more balanced and strong in all registers, with a greater palette of colors” compared to his previous instrument, the 1683 “ex-Gingold” Stradivari, which he loved for its “sweet, dark, and rich sound” but found it harder to play and somewhat less suited for concertos.
The “ex-Kiesewetter” does seem to suit well Hadelich’s virtuosity and assertive playing, especially in this often aggressive, and often emotionally dark concerto. Shostakovich completed it in 1948, during the time of the Soviet cultural policy imposed by the Zhdanov Decree that forced artists to creatively conform to the party line, risking persecution if they failed to do so. Thus the concerto was not premiered until 1955.
The violin acts as a kind of Shakespearean protagonist, and one can feel the sense of suppression in the broodingly slow opening movement. The demoniacal scherzo that follows introduces the DSCH motif (the notes D, E-flat, C and B-natural — or D, Es, C, H in German notation), which, as his initials in German, symbolizes Shostakovich himself in many of his compositions. The grand passacaglia that is the concerto’s third movement also introduces the “Stalin theme” from his Symphony No. 7 as well as the “fate knocking” theme from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. At the end of the passacaglia, a cadenza for the violinist intervenes, leading directly into the finale, a burlesque of wild abandon.
Hadelich, with a firm-footed stance, leaned forward as if pushing into the music itself, making his violin’s presence in the music stand out boldly against the challenge of the orchestral imperative provided by de Waart and the ASO, offering up a truly thrilling performance.
After several ovations, Hadelich returned to the stage to play Paganini’s Caprice No. 21 as the encore, a piece that stood well on its own feet in the wake of the juggernaut concerto.
The last time the ASO played Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, it was also on an all-Russian program with music by Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff, in February 2014 with violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as soloist and Robert Spano on the podium — the Rachmaninoff work in that particular instance was his “Symphonic Dances.”
This time, the Shostakovich concerto was paired with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, a work written in 1907 that not only enjoys a good bit of appeal with a symphonic audience, but includes a lush theme that opens the third movement most famous in the United States for its theme for the syndicated classical music radio program Music Through the Night. The Second Symphony has also found a place in popular culture thanks to an excerpt from the second movement being present in the film score for the 2014 motion picture Birdman.
Edo de Waart has a long personal history with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. It was 42 years ago, back in 1976, that Philips Classics released a distinguished recording of the work by the then-young and demanding de Waart conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Today, the 72-year-old de Waart is music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and holds positions of conductor laureate at the Antwerp Symphony, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Milwaukee Symphony orchestras — the last after concluding his tenure as Milwaukee’s music director at the close of the 2016–17 season. That early Philips album was digitally remastered and re-released on CD in 2008 by PentaTone.
For Thursday’s performance with the ASO, de Waart brought his experienced hand to the table. He led a performance where detailed elements of melodic phrasings were prominent and the overall orchestral forces were well-balanced, with wide dynamic range and an overall sound that was big and lush in its heights but without exaggeration.
The lyrical themes upon which the third movement are founded had their rightful place but were not overdone, as they sometimes can be when a conductor overplays the “ear candy” aspects of a piece as a comfortable fuzzy blanket for the audience. Instead, the melodies there, and throughout the work, sang well, as they should in the context of the work’s over-arching, hour-long musical journey.