The program that conductor Vasily Petrenko prepared for his return to the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), which received its first of two performances this afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, could almost have been entitled “A Tale of Two Russias.” Before the intermission we had Sergei Rachmaninoff’s nostalgia for the perfumed opulence of Imperial Russia, while the intermission was followed by a commemorative celebration of the 1917 revolution in the form of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 112 (twelfth) symphony in D minor, given the title “The Year 1917.” Rachmaninoff was represented by his signature composition, the Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor, with Sa Chen making her SFS debut.
Opus 18 is the concerto that just about every pianist has to take on at some time in the course of his/her career. It is so familiar and has been played so many ways that it is difficult for an up-and-coming pianist both to display a solid command of the technical requirements and fix some kind of personal stamp at the same time. Chen’s strategy seemed to be to make sure that the soft notes were endowed with as much significance as the loud ones.
This was immediately evident in her approach to the very opening, which not only encompasses three disparate registers but also assigns a different dynamic level to each one. Similarly, as the concerto progressed, she always seemed to be gauging her dynamics to how Petrenko was shaping the orchestral phrases. This may have had a few lapses when things got a bit too indulgent during the second (Adagio sostenuto) movement; but the overall dynamic contour did much to establish the entire concerto as an adventurous journey in which soloist and orchestra were fellow travelers.
Chen returned to Rachmaninoff for her encore, the fifth of the preludes from the Opus 32 collection in the key of G major. This is an elaborate fabric with an interplay between texture-as-background and counterpoint-as-texture. She performed it with confident calmness, drawing attention to the music itself rather than the plethora of technical skills demanded for its proper execution. Chen clearly knows where the solid musical values reside in Rachmaninoff’s compositions, and she had no trouble communicating those values to the attentive listener.
The values behind Shostakovich’s Opus 112, on the other hand, are very much “something completely different.” As I observed in my preview article, the symphony can be taken as a “sequel” to its predecessor, Opus 103 in G minor, which depicts episodes from the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. Things turned out better in 1917; and, having finally joined the Communist Party, Shostakovich felt he could do his part by recalling the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and honoring Vladimir Lenin. If Opus 103 was episodic, Opus 112 is more narrative, beginning with the unrest in Petrograd in the first movement that culminates in a “Rising” (also the name of Lenin’s country retreat) in the second movement. The third movement is named after the battleship Aurora, whose salvos are depicted in the familiar Shostakovich style. The final movement then celebrates the “Dawn of Humanity,” rising from the broken eggs of revolution.
As Scott Foglesong observed in his notes for the program book, it is easy to dismiss this symphony as Soviet propaganda at its most blatant. On the other hand the first movement comes closer to “traditional” sonata form than any other symphony movement he wrote. I use scare quotes (which Foglesong did not do in his notes) because Shostakovich’s model is closer to Brahms than to Beethoven, specifically the final movement of Brahms first symphony (Opus 68 in C minor), in which the thematic plan appears first in the slow introduction, then in the exposition, and finally in the recapitulation, which does double-duty as development by prolonging each thematic element. Shostakovich did not invoke the introductory gambit; but the exposition-recapitulation architecture is pure (well, perhaps not that pure) Brahms.
Mind you, there is still an overly-generous share of tub-thumping up on the surface structure of this symphony. However, Petrenko has a way of finding just the right pace and dynamic shape to keep those heart-on-sleeve gestures from getting tedious. He did not have quite the same nuanced approach to a long gradual crescendo at the end of the symphony that made his approach to the Opus 47 (fifth) symphony in D minor so stirring; but he still skillfully managed listener attention through the succession of climaxes in the coda of Opus 112.
In sharp contrast to this Janus-faced view of Russia, Petrenko chose to begin his program with the overture Samuel Barber composed for a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The School for Scandal (his Opus 5). There is a tendency to dismiss this as almost “recreational” incidental music, more fun for the players than the listeners. However, Barber is particularly skilled in giving musical voice to the nature of scandalous gossip. The informed listener might almost take this overture as an instruments-only rethinking of “La calunnia è un venticello” (calumny is a little breeze), Don Basilio’s aria from the first act of Gioacchino Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville. That “little breeze” is there in the opening string passage; and, true to Basilio’s model, it just keeps building, even to the point where it tramples over the music’s recollection that the play also has a pair of young lovers in it.
None of this came through in Petrenko’s approach to this music. It would not surprise me to learn that he has never seen Sheridan’s play. (I assume he knows The Barber of Seville.) The result was an energetic workout for the full SFS ensemble; but there was no heart in the music. Even the disposition of the performers on the stage seemed to suggest that they just wanted to work their way through this overture and then get on with the rest of the program.