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Charles Dutoit brings a program of sharp contrasts to his second week at Davies

Pianist Kirill Gerstein
Pianist Kirill Gerstein
by Marco Borggreve, from Gerstein's Web site

The second program that conductor Charles Dutoit prepared for his two-week visit to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall consisted of only two compositions. During the first half he was joined by pianist Kirill Gerstein for a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 19 concerto in B-flat major. The intermission was then followed by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 93 symphony in E minor, his tenth.

Opus 19 is one of those compositions that Beethoven subjected to considerable reworking. He began to write it in 1790 and may have played it in Vienna in 1795. The composition then went through several stages of revision before being finalized in 1801 and published in December of that year. Because his later C major concerto was published as Opus 15 in March of that year, Opus 19 is called the second piano concerto, even though it predates Opus 15.

Opus 19 is one of those pieces in which Beethoven seems to be seeing new horizons by standing on the shoulders of a giant. The giant was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and Opus 19 shows that Beethoven must have been an enthusiastic student of the piano concertos Mozart had written. Of the five piano concertos that Beethoven published, it is the one that is best approached with the lightest touch; and it is one of Beethoven’s most good-humored pieces in his entire canon.

Still, there are no shortage of ways in which he was looking forward with it. This is evident even before the first entry of the piano. The ensemble instrumentation calls for strings (reduced in number last night to a size compatible with the strength of a modern grand piano), one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, and two horns, the same sort of instrumentation one might encounter in Mozart. However, while Mozart was particularly deft at using winds to add coloration to thematic material shared with the strings (as was experienced at Davies earlier this season), Beethoven provided the winds with their own melodic vocabulary, which then unfolded concurrently with the themes in the string section. This was a major advance in Beethoven’s development as a composer and one that he would explore in many subsequent settings.

On the piano side we are aware of how Beethoven is beginning to exercise prolongation over more extended durations. We also discover that Beethoven’s own cadenza for the first movement begins with a fugue (possibly one he originally improvised). Thus, we experience an early sign of the significant role that fugue would play in so many of his subsequent compositions.

Ultimately, however, it is through that good-humored rhetoric that this piece really shines. Gerstein seemed to understand this; and, if his tempo choices were sometimes a bit too fast for the responsiveness of his keyboard, he never gave up a general spirit of playfulness that emerges so frequently in Mozart’s concertos and so rarely in Beethoven’s. Dutoit’s ensemble support provided Gerstein with free rein to romp to his content, while making it clear that SFS was not there for mere accompaniment. The Adagio movement thus emerged almost as an intimate dialog, while the concluding Rondo was a bit like a tennis game with the principal theme bouncing between soloist and ensemble. While many may think of Opus 19 as a rather slight effort when compared with Beethoven’s “masterpieces” (scare quotes intended), last night’s performance made it clear that this was music with a generous share of its own merits.

Shostakovich composed his Opus 93 symphony in 1953. Those familiar with the history of the Soviet Union and its impact on the work of creative artists will recognize that this was the year in which Joseph Stalin died (along with Sergei Prokofiev at almost exactly the same time). Shostakovich began work on Opus 93 within a few months after Stalin’s death; and there are a variety of reasons to believe that he used music to express thoughts (even if highly encrypted) about Stalin that were unthinkable while that tyrant was still alive.

The strongest evidence for this assertion can be found in the second (Allegro) movement, a lightning-fast and violent scherzo that is significantly shorter than any of the other four movements in the symphony. (Shostakovich’s sense of durational proportion is often eccentric. The duration of the first two movements is about the same as that of the last two. However, while the final two movements are about equal in duration, the first movement is about five times longer than the second.) If a scherzo is supposed to be playful, then this movement is the play of William Shakespeare’s wanton boys killing flies for sport. (Those familiar with Stalin’s biography will appreciate just how apposite this metaphor is.)

This symphony is also one of several Shostakovich compositions to use the DSCH motif. Since E-flat is called “Es” in German, this amounts to an abbreviated spelling of the composer’s name. By the conclusion of the symphony, this metaphor is being proclaimed insistently and loudly, almost as if Shostakovich is vigorously asserting (Chevy Chase style) “Stalin is dead, and I’m not!” Yet the rhetoric is an odd mix of comedy and desperation. Like just about everyone else in Russia, Shostakovich had absolutely no idea how things would go in the wake of Stalin’s death. Nevertheless, we can probably grant that this symphony may have been his way of venting (however cautiously) at least some of the relief he felt that Stalin was no longer around to persecute him.

Dutoit presented this symphony with a keen sense of balance. This involved not only control of the vast diversity of instrumental resources in all four sections but also scrupulous attention to dynamics, always appreciating the distinction between dramatic climax and uninhibited outburst. Under Dutoit’s management, the latter never swamped the former. The result was a reading of Shostakovich in which none of the latent dramatic intensity was short-changed but in which the unfolding of that drama over the course of about an hour was always more important than any individual event.