|Augustin Hadelich played Bartok superbly.|
Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 in C minor had to wait until 1961 for its first performance. Spooked by official backlash to his edgy opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," he prudently withdrew a work also saturated in scorned modernism.
Bela Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2 (the composer objected to the numbering, because he felt his first violin concerto didn't represent him well) premiered in Amsterdam without its composer's attendance. The turmoil in Europe had prompted his self-exile to the United States, where he died in 1945.
Krzysztof Urbanski conducted both works Friday night at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in a Classical Series concert. Soon the orchestra will begin its monthlong wallow in profitable "Yuletide Celebration" performances. The ISO's music director is not scheduled to return until Jan. 10.
This weekend's concerts benefit from the return engagement of Augustin Hadelich, who won first prize in the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. The Italian-born son of German parents, who finished his training at Juilliard and since 2014 has been a U.S. citizen, has an extensive repertoire and is known for polished, intense performances.
His playing of the Bartok concerto Friday lent further support to this reputation. Much of the soloist's music, especially in the first movement, has an insinuating quality. It threads its way among an arresting accompaniment. Hadelich's playing was suavely in accord with the mood, yet never lacked assertiveness. The evocations of Hungarian folk music, particularly in the finale, were lent a peasant heartiness, recalling the manner in which the violin introduces itself in the first movement. Lyrical passagework in the second movement was adroitly handled, on top of string tremolos and washes of harp and celesta. There was plenty of zest and color in the orchestral accompaniment throughout.
Rapturously received, the soloist returned for an encore. Just about everyone knows it: Paganini's Caprice No. 24 — heard often in the IVCI before and since Hadelich got his gold medal, and also subjected to rich treatment by other composers. His may have been the best performance of this chestnut I've ever heard. The cleanliness and flair of the dazzling pizzicato variation alone was unforgettable. His overall approach was supple and imaginative, just as it had been at great length in the concerto.
Modernism now represents an era and an empire, extensively colonized. In the Soviet Union, the label was almost literally deadly. "Bourgeois formalism" was among the ideologically loaded terms applied to music that challenged the understanding and didn't allow Russian ears to lie back in easy chairs, to borrow a snort from Charles Ives.
Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony is still a challenge for contemporary audiences, who have never been anywhere near the demands of "socialist realism" and forced to admire the emperor's old clothes. In three movements, with the first and third constituting the great part of its hourlong bulk, his opus 43 presents the young composer at his most adventurous and daring, stubbornly modernist in inclination, though entirely innocent of the innovations of Arnold Schoenberg that shaped musical modernism in the West.
The piece doesn't always "work," yet the performance Urbanski led Friday had multiple glories and displayed a fine management of its succession of surprises and whims. A wit once described his own wife as having "a whim of iron," and Shostakovich shows such obdurate loyalty to odd notions in this symphony that the patience is often tried.
I try to resist composers' strictures on their rivals, past and present: A listener's investment in music is of a wholly different order from a creator's. But I can't help recalling that the firmly opinionated Pierre Boulez, who represented a much different modernist track, once described Shostakovich's music as "nothing but cliches." At his furthest modernist stretch, as he is in this symphony, the cliches are thrown into the harshest light — those dance and march rhythms ridden to a fare-thee-well, that manipulation of texture to make climaxes as lurid as possible, and those disconcerting swerves into something offhand and banal before another plunge into deep icy waters.
The scattershot impression of most of the first movement, for which the astute Michael Steinberg recommends the old-fashioned term for development of "free fantasia," seems to be the main point it has to make. I could never make sense of it all, though portions were thrilling enough. There are too many effects without causes. Thinking of it as a free fantasia helps.
At his best, in some of the chamber music and the Fifth and Tenth symphonies, Shostakovich's effects always sound "earned." You can trace them back to their causes, even when they may be irritating, as they are in the "Leningrad" Symphony (whose endless march Bartok made fun of briefly in his Concerto for Orchestra). In the Fourth's finale, as played Friday, there was some of this firm linkage of cause and effect, though the Shostakovich cliches abound.
After the slambang climax, the settling down into delicacy keyed to the celesta and the emotional ambiguity of mood at the end is quite effective. There's enough merit in the whole thing that it's not absurd to suppose Urbanski programmed it because, as he said in a promotional video posted online, it's his wife's favorite symphony. The outsized orchestra required made the most of the extremes and almost everything in between. There were several outstanding solos, including one from this weekend's guest concertmaster, David Friedlander of the North Carolina Symphony.
Igor Stravinsky, whose modernist path was different from Boulez's, Schoenberg's, and Shostakovich's, is represented in this program by the sprightly curtain-raiser of "Scherzo a la Russe." As authentic an avatar of modernism as anyone, Stravinsky never abandoned his affinity for the arch-romantic Tchaikovsky, his greatest Russian forebear. This five-minute piece, buoyantly played Friday, is one of several examples.