The New York Philharmonic and Jaap van Zweden opened its Music of Conscience series with Rudolf Barshai’s string-orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet (1960) written in the wake of the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War Two. Barshai, an important conductor, was a colleague and close friend of Shostakovich. Recognizing the orchestral characteristics in several of the composer’s String Quartets, Barshai (1924-2010) transcribed five of them (the others being 1, 3, 4 & 10). The Eighth is dedicated to the “victims of fascism and war”, but Shostakovich later admitted that he had in mind the terrors of the Stalin years.
The evening was especially memorable because the Philharmonic celebrated its retiring and retired members. On their behalf the orchestra displayed its most outstanding qualities. Van Zweden led a brilliantly conceived performance of the Shostakovich, illuminating the soft somber atmosphere of the opening movement at a steady pace, with rich-sounding sonorities that generated a soulful aura. An energetic Allegro molto, riveting in its intensity, was followed by a thrusting Allegretto with tricky meter shifts that keep the musical line disturbingly out of balance. Van Zweden thoroughly captured Shostakovich’s soul in the final two Largo movements; the razor-edged strokes that open the first of these felt like knife-thrusts forcefully attacking the very core of the spirit, and reverberating strings added pungency and willfulness to their resolutely applied weaponry; and, as if in despair, the music reverts to the sullen atmosphere of the opening, given a gentle, soothing touch by the heartfelt expression of concertmaster Frank Huang.
For the ‘Eroica’, ultimately Beethoven’s denunciation of Napoleon’s dictatorship, van Zweden set a brisk tempo for the opening Allegro (with exposition repeat). He conducted much of this triple-meter movement in one-to-the-bar, so that he was able to stay in-tempo consistently and impressively, keeping up the pace as well as the high level of intensity with hardly any backsliding. The ‘Marche funèbre’ was also set at a forward-moving pace, never overbroad or lumbering, the tempo steady in four-to-the-bar as Beethoven intended, and avoiding excessive dramatics. Horns were especially resilient toward the close and the strings never sounded weepy or morose. Following a spirited Scherzo, the Finale was offered as a fitting balance to the first movement. Full of vitality and verve, enhanced by lightly reinforced details, van Zweden’s reading fitted the mix perfectly, played with impressive force and he rendered the Andante section with a touch of nostalgia as if from a dream. The closing Presto – marked at the same pace as the Scherzo – was not rushed yet generated much energy: further evidence of how well Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic are serving music.