Philippe Quint, violin: VSO/ James Gaffigan, Works by Barber, Mozart and Shostakovich, Orpheum, November 29, 2014.

In recent seasons, we have been getting very accustomed to seeing younger soloists appear with conductors of about the same age.  This time, we have the pairing of 35 year-old American conductor James Gaffigan and 40 year-old Russian/American violinist Phillipe Quint.  Quint has already produced three award-winning recordings of Bernstein, Korngold and William Schuman while the conductor now conducts a great number of leading international orchestras, and has had a recent stint with the Vienna State Opera.  One nice thing about Gaffigan’s offerings is how varied and adventurous they are.  In his appearance two years ago, we started with an intimate wind serenade by Richard Strauss, moved through Bernstein’s Serenade, ending with Beethoven’s “Eroica.”   This time, we started with the Intermezzo from Barber’s Vanessa, ventured through a Mozart Violin Concerto and ended with Shostakovich’s massive “Leningrad” Symphony.  Certainly, a feast of variety!

I thought the Barber opener was attractive and refreshing, the conductor having considerable command over its line and detail, and coaxing a well-shaped response from the strings.  The Mozart Violin Concerto No. 4 was even finer.  One thing I like about James Gaffigan is that he seems to be sensitive to issues of ‘authentic’ style.  In his Beethoven last time, I noticed his very conscientious effort to avoid any semblance of bloated textures.  The end result had the same clean feel as, say, late Abbado.  The Mozart conducting here had a similar awareness, featuring transparent textures, a freshness, and a nice feeling for characterization. Philippe Quint can produce a very sweet and clean tone when he needs to but what impressed me this time was the variety and contrast in his playing. The violinist could cut the orchestral texture so intelligently, creating intimacy at one moment, a quicksilver athleticism at the next, and then finding a tempered strength and eloquence for the longer line.  The last movement had some notable moments where a seeming refinement was contrasted with an almost rustic ‘fiddle’ projection.  This was all interesting; the performance had both integration and voice, and the articulation did have an authentic feel to it.

Keeping with authenticity, what then is an ‘authentic’ performance of Shostakovich’s massive Leningrad Symphony?  Perhaps it is anyone’s guess.  Its original anti-Nazi message has been scrutinized and debated continuously since its first performance, at one point even inducing Maxim Shostakovich to enter the discussion to explain his father.  Even the legendary Mravinsky seem to shy away from the work, taking over a decade from its premiere (conducted by Samosud in 1942) to record it.  Furthermore, the composition was largely dismissed in the West, gaining the reputation early on as the composer’s least distinguished symphony -- a veritable rag-bag of a creation.   It was perhaps only the reconsideration of the recordings by Yevgeny Svetlanov and Karel Ancerl from the late 1960’s, and the emergence of a fresher approach by Bernard Haitink a decade later, that reestablished the work’s credibility for current times. 

So, just how do you play this work to reveal its true message and feeling?  Of course, there is the Russian way with a vivid sharpness to the contours and a stark realism of expression, but perhaps that plays too much into the programmatic.  James Gaffigan evidently wants to find a different type of structure and feeling in this work and to treat it more as absolute music. His approach was, on one hand, softer and more cultivated; on the other more naturalistic and sheerly beautiful. Right from the opening of the work, the upper strings had a heartfelt radiance and tender innocence which perhaps took me close to the ‘wayfarer’ feeling of Mahler’s First Symphony.  Even the famous Bolero-like March that goes on and on seemed to be more balletic and rounded in feel rather than particularly caustic and angular.  The end of this opening movement -- with the ‘war’ between the upper strings and the brass -- had a strong and consistent symphonic tread, building cumulatively.  This was music of conflict for sure but not really of sharp urgency or tangible human terror; the conflict was more cosmic, more general, like Bruckner.

The two middle movements, taken quite deliberately, reinforced this approach. String phrases sometimes hinted at the angelic, sometimes the pastoral, and occasionally opening out into a warm rich glow for mankind at large.  These were not the expressions of immediate anxiety, and the bizarre and macabre allusions were minimized.  It was the beauty in the underlying feeling that was always brought out. The flute at the opening of the Adagio was very touching -- again with almost a balletic underpinning -- giving way to music of both wonder and triumph. There was the apparition of Mahler’s Ninth, but hope was still present. Again, a cutting edge might have appeared in the finale, but did not. This was a rounded, warm treatment, featuring expert rhythmic control, again building with a Brucknerian dignity and inevitability to its close.  The overall message, it seemed, was that Love, Beauty, Nature and Hope are bigger and more important than the ephemeralities of political conflict.  A fascinating slant; it was almost as if Shostakovich was a devoutly religious man!


© Geoffrey Newman 2014