Friday, January 12, 2024

van Zweden takes two Fifths

Originally I was scheduled to review this San Francisco Symphony concert for SFCV, and that's the headline I would have suggested. Guest conductor Jaap van Zweden, currently closing out his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, conducted two of the most iconic Fifth Symphonies in the repertoire, Beethoven's and Shostakovich's. They don't sound at all alike, nor did van Zweden approach them in a similar manner, but they actually have a lot in common.

Both are large, serious-minded works of substance and depth, the embodiment of what the word 'symphony' traditionally means. Each begins with dark, brooding, jagged music in the minor mode, and concludes with a vigorous explosion in a long-delayed achievement of the same key in the major mode. The difference is that Beethoven's finale, though actually more garrulous and repetitive than Shostakovich's, feels more integral, more earned as an outcome of what's come before. Shostakovich's often sounds tacked on, shrill and empty of a feeling that it's the outcome of an honest struggle.

Of course, there's the theory that Shostakovich intended it that way, as a satirical dig at the forced celebrations of the Soviet Union, but such explanations have always seemed to me to resemble a cat, caught in some clumsy or embarrassing position, emerging with a look of "I meant to do that" on its face.

It's up to the performers to make Shostakovich's Fifth hang together, and that seems to have been the goal of SFS under van Zweden's direction. I first heard van Zweden here, years ago, apply a technique of whizzing speed with crisp articulation in the fast parts, and a slowness amounting to lethargy to the slow parts, of Tchaikovsky's Fourth. Something like that, dialed down only a little, was his approach to Shostakovich. It has two slow movements, the first and third of four, and van Zweden took the outer, quiet parts of each with long-breathed sobriety, speeding up for the climaxes in the middle. The finale has the opposite structure, loud and boasting outsides and a quiet wandering section in between. This performance took the outsides with simple vigor and energy, robbing them of any sense of shrillness or inappropriateness. The middle, though quiet and slow, was similarly bold and exhibitive, without any feeling that it had lost its way. The only problem was some difficulty in ramping the speed back up again when the middle was over.

Beethoven's Fifth has only one slow movement, the second of four, and it's not that slow, so van Zweden approached the work as if it didn't have any. This performance had no abrupt tempo changes or even much variation in speed. The entire piece was briskly paced, compact in shape and size, and punchy in sound and volume. It was Beethoven's Fifth as if it were his Eighth. The conductor gave variety and character to the piece with emphases and extended notes, for instance exaggerating Beethoven's instruction to extend the second fermata in the opening motto much more than the first, which he hardly acknowledged at all. Various accompanying figures popped out, sometimes drowning out the principal line. He applied similar techniques to Shostakovich.

Despite the dissimilar approaches to overall shaping, the works both came out serious and straightforward in nature. They didn't feel in conflict or indigestible together. I wasn't expecting this concert to work together as a unit, but it did.

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