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Music Review

A Russian flair for Philharmonic

Russian cellist Natalia Gutman performed the solo in Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. Russian cellist Natalia Gutman performed the solo in Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. (Suzanne kreiter/globe staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 25, 2008

On Saturday, conductor Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic presented a diptych of iconic Russians: Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 ("Pathétique").

The soloist for the Shostakovich was Russian cellist Natalia Gutman, a student of Rostropovich (to whom the concerto is dedicated) and longtime European luminary who all too rarely crosses the Atlantic. Hers was a muscular, intense reading, with a forcefully bowed, wiry tone; even the comparatively gentle phrases of the second movement retained an adamantine core, and the extensive solo cadenza preceding the finale had an inexorable rhythmic underpinning that precluded any superficial sentimentality.

The finale itself started frenzied and stayed there, giving soloist and ensemble nowhere to go: The music didn't culminate so much as stop. But Gutman's taut declamation defined the performance. Shostakovich is portrayed as a victim of political oppression, but this was a reminder that his music is as much about the tough, wily resourcefulness of emotional survival. (A pair of Bach encores - the "Sarabande" and "Bourrée" from the third cello suite - showed another side to Gutman's playing, warm and inwardly searching.)

The Tchaikovsky was a satisfying match of repertoire and conductor. Zander's penchant for underlining the music - punching up accents, stretching expressive turns of phrase, amplifying the shape of gestures - found an ideal canvas in Tchaikovsky's symphony, much like a Restoration tragedy that comes alive with the application of appropriately pitched overacting. It was a lovely, extroverted rendition of a piece that abounds in extroverted loveliness.

There were small flaws: The second movement's gracefully asymmetrical waltz made up in polish what it lacked in lilt, and the third movement's unbridled march nevertheless lost just enough rhythmic drive along the way to finish conventionally exciting rather than astonishing. The outer movements, though, had real grandeur, the paragraphs expansive enough that the dramatic emphasis and the unfolding musical design reinforced each other.

The "Pathétique" is often viewed in light of Tchaikovsky's death a mere nine days after its premiere, but the symphony's true importance to the composer's evolution was its combination of logical form with an almost operatic promiscuity of emotion. In honor of one of Tchaikovsky's operas, an adaptation of Pushkin's "The Queen of Spades," a gambling analogy: if Shostakovich, even at his most powerful, kept his cards close to his vest, Tchaikovsky's Sixth is the music of a man going all in.

Boston Philharmonic

Benjamin Zander, conductor With Natalia Gutman, cello

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday

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