Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented a long-overdue premiere. Dmitri Shostakovich’s suite of eleven settings of the verses of Michelangelo received its first performance. This was the first half of the program prepared by Manfred Honeck, currently Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, also appearing on the SFS podium for the first time. The vocalist, on the other hand, has been a frequent visitor to San Francisco, German baritone Matthias Goerne.
Shostakovich began work on this suite in the summer of 1974, which turned out to be almost exactly twelve months prior to his death on August 9, 1975. It was originally written for bass and piano (Opus 145, completed on July 31) and was first performed in that form on December 23, 1974. Having finished the piano version, he turned his attention to an orchestrated version (Opus 145a), which he completed on November 5. However, he never heard his music in that form, since it was not performed that way until October 12, 1975.
Shostakovich’s encounter with Michelangelo’s poetry seems to have been only through a Russian translation by Abram Efros. All but two of the poems that Michelangelo selected are sonnets, and the last is probably the opening octave of a sonnet. It is unclear whether Efros tried to capture either the rhythm or the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan form, and it is probably not relevant. Shostakovich was occupied solely with the semantics of these poems; and the vocal delivery has a strong prose-like character. What probably drew Shostakovich to his selections was the variety of ways in which this working artist used his writing to reflect on the nature of life, the commitment to work, and the world in which both of these were embedded.
Since I am not fluent in Russian, I cannot comment on Goerne’s command of the language. Nevertheless, his delivery captured a natural flow of the words consistent with those prose-like rhythms. The vocal line is straightforward, probably because Shostakovich was so taken with the significations of the texts he had selected that he did not want them to be impeded by excess virtuosity. It is also interesting to note that English translation was available only through overhead projections. No version of the texts appeared in the program book. This may have been a production decision to reinforce Shostakovich’s “prose stance.”
The accompaniment then provides both context and commentary with respect to those significations that Shostakovich chose to prioritize. Here we encounter much that is familiar, particularly when the commentary is ironic. We also encounter the composer often working with very spare resources in individual songs, allowing different sections of the ensemble for provide different colorations for the texts as appropriate. One of those colorations was a delicious solo taken by Principal Bass Scott Pingel, which was almost as lyrical as the vocal line (if not more so). Nevertheless, there are the occasional full-throated outbursts from the ensemble, almost as if Shostakovich wished to make sure that listeners knew that he still “had it.” The most striking (pun intended) of these comes in the “Creativity” poem, in which a super-charged percussion section delivers its own rendition of Michelangelo attacking his block of marble with hammer and chisel.
The entire cycle was given a disciplined interpretation by Honeck that was as expressive as it was attentive. His chemistry with Goerne was definitely a good one, allow Goerne the full scope of his own expressive toolbox to endow each poem with its own individual character traits. Honeck’s relation with SFS also seemed to be equally effective. Opus 145a offers a variety of challenges in “resource management;” and these challenges can only be overcome through “noise-free communication” between the podium and the ensemble. Honeck was definitely clear about where he wanted this music to go, and SFS seemed to be totally committed to following him there.
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 64 (fifth) symphony in E minor. Honeck thus chose to introduce himself to San Francisco with an all-Russian program, combining the rarely-performed with a familiar warhorse. His approach to Opus 64 began with some particularly imaginative shaping of dynamic contours, and he definitely knew how to evoke quiet passages with maximum intensity. However, as the symphony progressed, it was clear that his preferences lay with the other end of the dynamic spectrum. The result was some truly rousing fortissimo passages that definitely got the juices flowing on audience side.
Nevertheless, there is only so much that one can take before recognizing a sameness to all of those gestures. As Pierre Boulez would have put it, Honeck never recognized the need for “lesser peaks,” without which the performance never manages to establish the one climax to rule them all. By the time the final movement lumbered its way into the coda, the attentive listener could have been forgiven for asking how much more of this stuff remained before the final measure. Nevertheless, that final measure was followed by an enthusiastic audience response, suggesting that Honeck had successfully tapped into an interpretation of Tchaikovsky with powerful mass appeal.