Arts & Events

New: Guest Conductor Manfred Honeck Leads Symphony in Shostakovich & Tchaikovsky

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday May 30, 2017 - 02:34:00 PM

In a series of concerts at Davies Hall, May 25-7, San Francisco Symphony offered Dmitri Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarotti and Piotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64. Austrian-born Guest Conductor Manfred Honeck led the Symphony in these concerts, making his local debut. In Shostakovich’s Michelangelo Suite, heard here for the first time, baritone Matthias Goerne sang Michelangelo’s verses in a Russian translation by Abram Efros.  

At the Saturday concert I attended, conductor Honeck energetically brought out all the contrasts between these two works by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. Where Shostakovich’s Michelangelo Suite is, for the most part, quietly meditative, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, on the contrary, is mostly boisterous and, occasionally, bombastic. However, there are similarities in that both of these works offer a somewhat gloomy outlook on life. 

In 1974, the last year of his life, Shostakovich set to music eleven of Michelangelo’s sonnets, a selection drawn from nearly 300 such poems. To each of these eleven verses Shostakovich added terse titles, such as Truth, Love, Creativity, Death, and Immortality. The titles help to orient the listener to various significant aspects of both Michelangelo’s life and Shostakovich’s own life. When baritone Matthias Goerne sings of Truth in the opening sonnet, there is a bitter note expressed in the world’s preference for falsehood over Truth. Throughout this Suite, Goerne gave a very sensitive interpretation of these verses, modulating his dark-hued voice to express now meditation, now anger, now resignation, and, occasionally, a ray of hope.  

To some listeners, including Joshua Kosman, music critic for San Francisco Chronicle, this work offers only gloom and despair. I beg to differ. While the Michelangelo verses and Shostakovich’s music emphasize the downside of human existence, they also celebrate the upside. This whole Suite, in my view, hinges on the delicate balance between these competing views on human life. 

Horns open the verse on Truth with an anguished refrain, which is later repeated as the opening of the verse on Death. For Shostakovich, who at the time of composing this work was suffering from cancer and knew he had not long to live, the ultimate Truth is Death. Low strings open the second verse, entitled Morning. In the third verse, entitled Love, Michelangelo ruminates on whether beauty resides in the loved one looked at or in the beholder, whose love colors his vision. In a later verse, a whip snaps and wood blocks repeatedly ring out, colorfully conveying an outburst of Anger. It is in this verse, I believe, that Michelangelo writes bitterly that “Heaven scorns every virtue it puts on Earth, then tells us to seek fruit on a barren tree.”  

Next, a lengthy verse extols the Tuscan poet Dante, and the following verse bemoans Dante’s Exile from his native Florence. This latter theme also resonates with suggestions of the forced exile of Soviet artists such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Galina Vishnevskaya, who all left Russia in the months immediately preceding composition of the Michelangelo Suite. A verse on Creativity features repeated blows from wood blocks to suggest the blows of Michelangelo’s hammer on the marble he is carving. His own creativity, the sculptor asserts, is as nothing without aid from God who created everything. A verse entitled Night offers gentle harp refrains. The opening of the verse on Death takes us back to the opening horns of Truth. But Death is not the end, for a verse follows on Immortality. For this Shostakovich drew on a childlike song he had composed at the age of nine. There ensues a lovely flute solo, played here exquisitely by Tim Day; and the work ends on quiet notes from the harp, beautifully played by Douglas Roth, accompanied by celesta. Throughout this entire work, baritone Matthias Goerne navigated these verses in exquisite fashion, modulating his voice to express each nuanced sentiment. I found this late work from Shostakovich immensely moving. 

After intermission conductor Manfred Honeck returned to the podium to lead the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. This work begins with low clarinets and low strings offering a slow theme that will underlie nearly every aspect of this work. It has been dubbed the theme of Fate. In its first appearance it somewhat resembles a funeral march. A second theme is heard in clarinet and bassoon, though the underlying chords are the same as in the Fate theme. Tchaikovsky heats up this second theme until it boils over in a boisterous fortissimo climax. In the second movement there is a gorgeous solo for French horn, superbly played here by Robert Ward. Later, the horn solo is taken over by clarinet and bassoon, but the Fate theme suddenly intervenes, cutting off the horn melody. Pizzicato chords then provide punctuation, and the horn melody is resumed in the violins. Another boisterous climax occurs only to be cut short by another return of the Fate theme. 

Next comes a charmingly melancholic waltz theme, which goes through numerous variations until it too gets interrupted by the Fate theme, this time a mere gossamer version of itself that is suggestively haunting. For the final movement, the Fate theme reasserts itself, initially in a long, slow introduction identical to the work’s opening. Then a volcanic theme erupts in the strings. A lyrical section for woodwinds and strings brings some repose. However, the Fate theme returns, this time in an outcry by the brass. There is now nothing gossamer about the Fate theme. It races full speed ahead, modulating from minor to major, in which guise it marches forth with tedious repetitions that verge on bombast. Is this the relentless victory of Fate or is it a successful overcoming of Fate? And what does Tchaikovsky mean by Fate? Is Fate, as some suggest, Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality? Nothing is clear; but the work races on to a headlong presto that brings the Fifth Symphony to an effective though somewhat dubious close. Enough already on the Fate theme, one might say. 

It was an auspicious debut here for conductor Manfred Honeck, who is Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony. The San Francisco Symphony orchestra responded well to Honeck’s energetic yet sensitive conducting. Let’s hope Honeck returns here often.