By Joseph E. Morgan
On November 17th the Nashville Symphony presented an exciting concert that featured Dimitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 77 with soloist Augustin Hadelich and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 the “Scottish.”
Shostakovich wrote his Violin Concerto for the great Soviet violinist David Oistrakh. It was premiered in 1955, and for the next couple of decades, Oistrakh’s interpretation was the definitive recording. The piece, although known for its technically difficult second and fourth movements, as well as an epic cadenza at the end of the third movement, is particularly challenging for its darkly pessimistic and brooding character, composed by perhaps the most cynical genius of the 20th century.
The next generation of violinists, after the wall came down, brought a greater acceptance of the now Russian masterpiece by Western orchestras and audiences. Russian and Western violinists, like Itzhak Perlman or Vadim Repin, and even more recently Hillary Hahn (2002), have made their own statements with this masterpiece, cementing its place in the instrument’s standard repertoire. To this list of great interpreters, we must now add Augustin Hadelich. In Nashville, he gave the work a transcendent reading.
To the first movement, an already relentlessly despairing nocturne, Hadelich built an incredible intensity that deepened the despair to near paralysis. Perhaps Shostakovich began the concerto in this dark manner in order to indicate that the sardonic shamelessness and sarcasm to come were only therapeutic defenses to this primary expression. Appropriately and most powerfully, in the second movement Scherzo and fourth movement Burlesque, Hadelich shifted to a more modernist or even neo-classical interpretation, performing these more energetic movements with objectively cold, distant and exacting expressions.
At the cadenza at the end of the third movement, a richly emotional movement whose cadenza leads directly into the cold final movement, it was amazing to listen to Hadelich’s transition between the characters of the two movements and his construction of an over-arching narrative interpretation for the piece. The interpretation revealed one of the primary aesthetics of early 20th-century music–it is common for an artist to strive to depict beauty, but to find a way in the darkness is a much greater thing altogether. After such an emotionally shattering performance, Hadelich was kind enough to return to the stage and encore with the beautiful Andante from Bach’s Second Sonata (BWV 2003. III).
After intermission, Maestro Guerrero returned to lead the symphony in a stirring rendition of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony. Mendelssohn wrote The Symphony from inspiration he acquired while on a grand tour of London and Scotland in 1829 at the age of 20. In the 19th-century, it was a common thing for young men of means to go on tour when they came of age. He likely chose Scotland because, as it was then believed, the ancient text Ossian was said to have been discovered there (it was actually written in 1760). Whatever the reason, the young man was moved by the history he found there. For example, he wrote of a visit to Queen Mary’s palace:
In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door; up this way they came and found Rizzio in that little room, pulled him out, and three rooms off there is a dark corner, where they murdered him. The chapel close to it is now roofless; grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything around is broken and mouldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.
Indeed, Mendelssohn, as a Romantic, was entranced by the idea of a lost civilization slowly disappearing beneath resurgent nature. This is also evident from his watercolor of the Amalfi Coast or his painting of an unknown castle disappearing under bourgeoning nature.
Maestro Guerrero took the orchestra through the piece with happy abandon. The Scottish folk reminiscences were given with warmth but not overly affective nostalgia. Good forward rhythmic drive helped; The Symphony is rather long at over 40 minutes and all movements are to be played without break. As usual, he handled the thematic development, much of the work is derived from the first movement’s opening theme, with a deft baton. The finale, with its bursts of fugato and final brilliant statement in the horns gave me the chills. It was just a wonderful evening and concert.
The Symphony returns on December 14, 2017 with its holiday performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. For more information visit The Nashville Symphony’s website here.