Leif Ove Andsnes summons the Russian composer at the Rosendal Festival, which proves its most rounded and ambitious edition to date”
“Norway shares just two hundred kilometers onto bordering Russia on the northeast corner of its territory, but it is the most protected and militarized border in the country. The Scandinavian countries – with Finland in the lead, of course – have always looked with fear and misgivings at their great neighbor in the East, and it is enough to review history to understand why. These days, however, Rosendal, the tiny town of the Hardanger Fjord in which pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has been conducting a small chamber music festival since 2016, has opened its doors wide to music born in Soviet Russia. The reason is that, after the editions devoted to Franz Schubert in 1828, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the centenary, last year, of the end of World War I, all programming has revolved around Dmitri Shostakovich, the most elusive of Russian composers, the most contradictory, the most inaprehensible, the most ambivalent.
“Andsnes has designed an adventurous programming which is clearly the result of research and reflection, beyond the usual commonplaces and far from the sclerotized offer of other festivals. He has succeeded not only in highlighting very different facets of the composer (youth, maturity and testamentary works; bright and dark, kind and hopeless, small and large format; chamber music, songs, film music and even symphonies in chamber music arrangements), but has also perfectly interlaced works by precursors (Mussorgsky, Skriabyin), contemporaries (Prokofiev, Feinberg, Ustvolskaya) and successors (Schnittke, Vustin). And he has known how to achieve the virtues to which any great festival should aspire: concentration and intensity (ten concerts of the highest level in less than 72 hours); great, well-known names (Clemens Hagen, Tabea Zimmermann, the Danel Quartet and Andsnes himself, of course) along with others deserving of much greater recognition (Marc-André Hamelin); surprises and discoveries (pianists Sasha Grinyuk and Marianna Shirinyan, clarinetist Anthony McGill, the aforementioned composer Aleksandr Vustin); young promises (the Ensemble Allegria); and a theoretical and spoken context to be able to better understand and enjoy this flood of generally unusual music, which has been largely carried out by a brilliant and loquacious Gerard McBurney, a first-hand connoisseur of Soviet musical reality.
“Rosendal also offers something that the most glamorous and wealthiest of the festivals could never possibly buy: a literally unsurpassed natural setting and an oasis of peace before and after the concerts, held in an old converted barn and in the small local church. There is a huge contrast between the artificial acoustics of the former, electronically modified by the engineer John Pellowe (and this year it has sounded better than ever), with the natural one of the latter. The modest and almost family-like concert hall is located within the large estate dominated by a 17th-century manor house and its beautiful gardens, the authentic origin of the village of Rosendal. The church of Kvinnherad, built in the thirteenth century, stands on a small promontory, overlooking the harbor, and offers spectacular views of the fjord and waterfalls, of all sizes, which ceaselessly rush through the surrounding mountains and multiply themselves like spores when it starts to rain. In both the concerts are often held with the doors and windows open: such are the calm and silence that reign outside.
“Shostakovich is the master of ambiguity: the same music seems to refer to one thing and its opposite. That is why the graphic image of the cover of the book-program of this edition is a brilliant and successful idea: the everlasting glasses of the Soviet composer accompanied only by his surname and his musical acronym (DSCH, the D-E flat-C-B, according to the German musical alphabet). Completing the rest, filling and coloring that great white background is in the hands of each one of us, without having been trapped in such a crude and simplifying way as the one used by Julian Barnes to write his latest novel, The noise of time, which has the composer as the main character. These days we have enjoyed plenty of opportunities for, with words and with very different kinds of music – better-known works, much less widespread others -, to get a better idea of who Dmitri Shostakovich was, or may have been.
The festival began, however, with the very bad news that what appeared to be one of the most demanding and most attractive concerts of these days (the possibility of hearing no less than the twenty-four Preludes and Fugues op 87 of Shostakovich, one of the top gems of his catalogue, in one and single session) had to be canceled due to the last-minute illness of the performer who was to achieve the feat: the Russian pianist Igor Levit. From the opening concert it was clear, however, that Leif Ove Andsnes had known only too well how to surround himself with great musicians who not only completed the painful gap left on Saturday morning by Levit, but, day after day, have left numerous proofs of his excellence as performers.
“Thus, on Thursday afternoon, before the usual opening greetings, we listened to a great performance of seldom played work by a very young (19 years) Shostakovich: the two Pieces for string octet, op. 11. The Danel Quartet was joined by the experience of two established names (violist Tabea Zimmermann and cellist Clemens Hagen) and the youth of two violinists at the beginning of their careers (Veriko Tchumburidze and Sonoko Miriam Welde). And the scathing, aggressive, stark, rude, mocking composer so characteristic of later works was already fully recognizable in this youthful piece. At the other end of the program, the Ensemble Allegria, a string orchestra formed by young Norwegian instrumentalists, played Quartet no. 8 in the version of Rudolf Barshai renamed as Chamber Symphony. And it is very pertinent that this was the case because this is one of the works in which the D-S-C-H motif appears almost obsessively from the first to the last measure, although it is not clear whether Shostakovich uses his musical emblem to assert himself or to protect himself. Dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war”, the Norwegian ensemble played it by heart (and it was the first time that they did not use the score), merit at all minor, just like the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra did a few weeks ago at the Point Festival in Gothenburg. That performance was more distressing, with all the musicians facing the audience and staring at them, but the Ensemble Allegria had the essential doses of fierceness, helplessness, courage and expressive intensity. And the end was, as the music cries out, the apotheosis of grief. The festival began with a blow on the jugular: a reminder that what awaited us would not be, very far from that, a path of roses.
“The Danel Quartet has made itself a name thanks above all to the frequent complete cycles of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets, which they have played on up to 29 occasions in many cities and festivals. Here they have played three, numbers 4, 5 and 13, confirming that they are authoritative performers of this music. Someone in Rosendal defined their way of playing as “pragmatic”, and it is not a bad adjective at all for, with a single word, not only to summarize which is their attitude on stage, but also to characterize the type of scalpel they prefer to use when inhabiting the 15 string quartets by the Soviet composer: they avoid any excess, they are extremely sober in their gestures and seem not to take sides with any of the factions that have been fighting for years in the so-called “Shostakovich wars”, although it is , of course, of a false appearance. What really happens is that their interpretation does delve into the mystery of music, its contradictions and complexities, but leave the resolution of the riddles in the hands of listeners. In the technical aspect, they perfectly master the sound expression of the two-part counterpoint, of the sparse textures or of the accompanied melody, all of them crucial elements of Shostakovich’s language when he wrote for four string instruments. On Saturday morning, in the concert that Igor Levit should have played, his Quartet no. 5 was applauded so warm-heartedly that they offered an encore, the first one of the two encores heard here these days: Improvisation and Romanzaby Mieczysław Weinberg, discovered and premiered by themselves last year at the Zaubersee Festival.
“One of the great moments of these days has been, without any doubt, the screening on Friday night of the film New Babylon(1929), by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, carefully restored by Marek Pytel and with the recovery of the original piano music composed by Dmitri Shostakovich, a frequent composer and performer of film music especially in his youth age. It was performed, with an amazingly perfect synchronization with the images, by the Ukrainian pianist Sasha Grynyuk, who astonished all of us present in the hall and who was awarded with one of the longest, sincere and enthusiastic applauses of these days. Playing non-stop for more than an hour and a half, Grynyuk followed and brilliantly shaped the two principles that, according to Shostakovich himself, had guided his work: that of obligatory illustration (music reveals the true inner meaning of the images) and the one of the contrasts (the music contradicts what we see on the screen). Full of quotations, always so dear to the composer, at times vulgar, sometimes deep, multi-style and always linked to the visual wonders worked by Kozintsev and Trauberg, watching the film with the music played live was an essential aesthetic experience to complement the image of the composer who were drawing the rest of the concerts.
“Of the various works by Aleksandr Vustin in the different programmes, the originality of Zaitsev’s letter, an actual letter written by a prisoner in which he denounced the inhuman conditions of the Russian prison system, made a special impression. Read and sung frantically by a tenor (an outstanding Christophe Poncet de Solages), Vustin weaves around the text a dense instrumental accompaniment for string and percussion progressing equally breathless until the very last note. Much helped by the great quality of the interpretation, two funeral works also made an excellent impression: his Lamentfor piano, played by Leif Ove Andsnes, and In memoriam Grigori Fried, for viola and piano, performed by Tabea Zimmermann and Marianna Shirinyan. When he came out to greet, Vustin’s face revealed astonishment: it is unlikely that he will ever hear a better performance of any of them. Attesting the quality and variety of Vustin’s music (whose opera The Devil in Lovewas premiered earlier this year in Moscow by Vladimir Jurowski three decades after its completion) reminds us of two things: how little we know of the music that was made in Russia after the death of Shostakovich, and how alive are still the aftermaths of the fierce persecution that many creators were subjected to by the Soviet regime.
“Other highlights of these days have almost always been linked to the conjunction of great works entrusted to great performers. At the head could perhaps be the last work heard on Saturday night: the testamentary, and almost terminal, Sonatafor viola by Shostakovich, immortalized in the homonymous film by Aleksandr Sokurov. It was performed by two giants of their respective instruments: Tabea Zimmermann and Leif Ove Andsnes. With extreme sobriety, granting meaning, depth, gtief and truthfulness to every note, to every silence, the complicity between the two is so great that we wish we could listen to them regularly also elsewhere and not only in Rosendal (Zimmermann was already here in 2017). In that same concert, Anthony McGill (principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic), violinist Marc Denel and Marc-André Hamelin gave voice to the music of Galina Ustvólskaya, one of the women who may have known best the most private Shostakovich. Her Trio is a small masterpiece, even quoted by his friend in one of his string quartets. If the stylistic debt is here fraternal, in Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet it is rather of father and son. We heard it interpreted on Friday in a performance as exceptional (with the Danel Quartet and Leif Ove Andsnes) as the one that would sound the day afterof the Piano Quintetby Shostakovich himself, played by the luxury trio formed by Tabea Zimmermann, Clemens Hagen and the prodigious Marc-André Hamelin, whom each and every one of his appearances have claimed as a pianist, and a musician, of real exception.
“The two concerts on Sunday were the true climax of these four days of enormous emotional intensity. The morning program should be taught to many organizers as an example of good practice, since the four works contained, explicitly or implicitly, references to Jewish popular music: the Overture on Hebrew themesby Prokofiev and the Two Sketches on Hebrew themesby Aleksandr Klein accompanied Quartet no. 4and one of the undisputed masterpieces by Shostakovich: the Piano Trio no. 2. The four knew formidable performances, but the one that struck the public the most was the latter, which contains a funeral lament for the death of a close friend of the composer, Ivan Sollertinsky, written in the form of a passacaglia. Leif Ove Andsnes and Clemens Hagen were the best imaginable performers of the piano and cello parts. It was not at this level (within the reach of few mortals, everything must be said) Veriko Tchumburidze, a violinist still little experienced as a chamber musician and, as such, too absorbed in her score, without that permanent and mutually enriching communication path that existed between Andsnes and Hagen. The ability of Shostakovich’s music to impact his listeners, leaving them plunged into a sea of uncertainties, was here perhaps more evident than ever.
The closing concert was once again another model, as it contrasted the figures of Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich, two contemporaries whose lives ran in parallel, without ever crossing each other, in the heat of the Soviet regime and far from it. Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin played the Concerto for two pianos by the former followed by a reduction, also for two pianos, of the Allegroof the Tenth Symphonyby the latter: the neoclassical order versus a mad race to nowhere that the two pianists translated into sounds with a virtuosity and a sharp rhythmic sense of pure sharpness. The prodigy unleashed the public’s enthusiasm and gave rise to the second encore of the festival: Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, a reminder that it is possible to find communicating pathways (humor) between these two giants of Russian music.
And concert and festival came to an end in the only possible way: with a transcription for piano and percussion trio (a paragon of intelligence and musical wisdom by its architect, Viktor Dervianko) of the Symphony no. 15by Shostakovich, perhaps the most intimate of his orchestral pages, a music that is guessed so private, so rich with clues whose meaning was only within the reach of its author, that upon hearing it, and more in this chamber music version, that one feels almost an intruder, peeking secrets and confessions that, in fact, he or she is not authorized to hear. The performance was extraordinary, again with Clemens Hagen giving lessons of very high musicality, very well supported by Sonoko Miriam Welde on the violin, Marianna Shirinyan on the piano (who had to study work at the very last minute in order to replace Igor Levit), the PERCelleh percussion duo (which had already shown frequent signs of virtuosity in previous days) and percussionist Christian Krogvold Lundqvist. The last bars of the Symphony, originally written for percussion and glockenspiel, as they sounded here, are a kind of delicate vanishing until this cluster of delicate sounds dissolves into a silence whose meaning, again, could only be known by Shostakovich himself. As had happened in the Piano Trio no. 2, or in the String Quartet no. 8, the deep imprint that this music had left in the audience easily was noticeable, for which, at this point, the Soviet musician was already an almost familiar figure, although, of course, as elusive and complex as at the beginning.
“The Rosendal Festival attracts more and more interest among foreigners, although Norwegians continue to constitute the bulk of the public. If there is a prize, this year it should be awarded to three enthusiastic Australian music lovers who have expressly made the long journey from their country to enjoy these four intense days of music and nature. If the thesis that Shostakovich’s music has a healing capacity is true (as Stephen Johnson explains so well in his recent and courageous essay How Shostakovich changed my mind), even more so if he enjoys the privilege of hearing it performed in the Rosendal paradise, we have all left here much better than we arrived. Everybody in his or her own way, we all have also crossed some border or another.”
Source: El Pais