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Broken but unbowed, guest conductor Stephan Sanderling hobbled onto the stage to take his seat at the podium for the third concert in North Carolina Symphony’s 2005-06 Classical Series. The evening’s program featured only two works, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Dmitry Shostakovich’s enormous Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905.” Sanderling, who had sustained a nasty fall in August that broke both feet and one shoulder and was forced to conduct sitting, at least had the shoulder sufficiently in shape to elicit some marvelous playing in the Shostakovich, although he was completely hidden behind the raised piano lid for the Beethoven.
The soloist for the evening was the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition silver medallist Antonio Pompa-Baldi. It was a pleasure to hear in concert this undeservedly least played of the Beethoven piano concertos, and the first he composed. The slow movement is the most tender of all the concertos, sounding more Mozartian than the composer’s later works. And the finale, with its two themes in reversed rhythms possesses a Haydnesque cleverness and wit. Pompa-Baldi started off a bit coldly in the first movement, using very little pedal as if he were trying to make the Steinway grand sound like a period piano. But he redeemed himself admirably at the end of the second movement where in the pianissimo dialogue between the piano and orchestra, he created an atmosphere of ethereal suspense using a sustained pedal and protracted rests. Sanderling kept a good dynamic balance between soloist and orchestra.
The Shostakovich Symphony is another matter. As so often with this composer, it contains two texts, one for Party consumption, the other from his own heart. Ostensibly meant to evoke the brutal suppression of the January 1905 demonstrations in St. Petersburg, it was inspired by the equally brutal suppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956. With the four movements played without interruption, it is more of a narrative symphonic poem, constructed out of a compendium of Russian ballads, than a true symphony. From the musical description of the silent destitute crowd waiting in frigid palace square for relief from the Tsar, to the attacking Cossacks, to the memorial – a requiem to the fallen – in the third movement and finally to the lesson learned and the revolutionary fervor born of suppression, it is a powerful statement. But at over one hour it is overly long and in places outwears its welcome. Its tone and imagery owes a lot to Sergey Prokofiev’s Aleksander Nevsky, and its orchestration, especially the brass in the last movement, to Gustav Mahler.
Doubts about the Symphony aside, the execution was superb. One of the peculiarities of the work is that the stars often were instruments that usually don’t get the limelight: timpani, bass clarinet and basses, in addition to the common soloists: flutes and English horn. The violas in particular had a major exposure in their repeated rendering of the song “You fell as victims” in the third movement, their velvety pianissimo was simply stunning. The whole performance demonstrated that the NCS has not only excellent first chairs, but has the depth to tackle such monumental works.
Of individual players, timpanist John Feddersen and Michael Schultz on the English horn must be singled out for extra praise. Sanderling, a champion of Shostakovich, clearly knows his way through this sprawling score, bringing out the drama of the story while keeping tight control of grand architecture. The audience enthusiasm at the end was as much for the music as for the orchestra. We suspect many people went home back to the web or history books to learn more about the 1905 uprising.