The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

DSO Berlin (06.12.2009) - Return of Tugan Sokhiev for scintillating Tchaikovsky 5. Johannes Moser, cello (Dvorak).

December return by Tugan Sokhiev to DSO Berlin tells altogether a different story than did previous visit – all Russian program – of Sokhiev’s work with this orchestra.

This was the fourth DSO broadcast within seven months of a cello concerto, as conducted by second to third tier men – Hanno Lintu, Hans Graf, and as previously, Sokhiev. Lintu and Sokhiev, Isserlis and Mork divided the two Shostakovich between themselves respectively - Mork one of two most successful out of four. The other, as just conducted by Sokhiev, is Johannes Moser. DSO principal Grunkorn on the Barber turned out fine as well, but especially compromised by having had to make concessions to a weak podium.

Before the Dvorak, we had Alexander Borodin’s ‘In the Steppes of Central Asia’ - first time I recall seeing this fine morsel programmed in quite some time. In its exotic charm, simplicity, it seldom makes itself unwelcome. It also has its subtleties to trip up anyone unsuspecting as to excessively understate the case for it - or try to make too much of one. Sokhiev, depending in part on very fine wind principals of DSO Berlin, achieved fine, expressive results. In shaping soulful English horn solo, when handed over to the strings, Sokhiev’s affection for this piece was clear. What may strengthen his next go at it is to anticipate downbeats less, rely less on doing so to be expressive. His ear for balances was still good here, plus his feel for atmosphere, apart from slightly heavy underlining and occasional soggy attacks from the brass.

Equally atmospheric was the brooding opening to the Dvorak concerto on clarinets. Some bearing down on the horns, making way into first orchestral tutti did not necessarily augur well for the rest of this, but fortunately only proved momentary lapse. Getting absolute clarity with downbeats still proves an issue with Sokhiev; the good news is that it may not be crippling his efforts so much anymore, it seems, for instance accompanied less by so much bearing down - as true several seasons ago. His considerable slowing down for second theme in the horn could have stalled matters, but both the artistry of DSO Berlin principal horn and of Sokhiev encouraging warm understatement of the case made doing so fine. He then provided fine lift for polka step raptly anticipating solo entrance.

Johannes Moser made controlled entrance of notable dignity, warmth, reserve, nobility, unfazed by double-stops and other technical challenges in the part that encumber many second-tier down cellists right away, attempting this. Pointing of woodwind concertato underneath was crisp, attentive – without any stiffness as found for similar writing in the Barber last week. Second theme sounded forth equally as genuine as from horn player in the orchestral exposition - then spinning forth into sextuplets with flute obbligato with fine aplomb. And then for sake of making slightly heavy rhetoric out of gestures on part of about all, closing section before ritornello and Development, for just about minute taken came across episodic.

Sokhiev recovered poise just about two lines into ritornello; starting with rapt, broadly paced musing that Moser gets to re-enter with, all proceeded through the Development with fine simplicity. Sokhiev made crackling transition, led by trumpet, then flutes and Moser together, into ending well the first movement.

Only momentarily self-conscious accenting, and disallowing violins enough foreground over brass (not playing too loudly) for opening of its middle section hampered a lovely, atmospheric handling of the second movement. Moser’s gently broad, arched, singing line, and Sokhiev’s sensitive accompaniment all related matters well, alongside fine concertato of DSO winds. All sentiment was unabashed, but very seldom ‘worked.’ Feeling of heartbreak at end, as the music on its own spells out nobly in sublime manner, came across entirely genuine.

The finale, with its internal contrasts between, within sections came off best. Wei Lu, in descant to Moser during long, extended final section to this rondo finale sounded curiously slightly placed back, but played his part fluently, expressively well. Crisper downbeat to dance accents near the start of this, from Sokhiev, might have been better though. Without being to the Bohemian folk manner born, he perhaps can still come closer to definitive in conducting this music with crisper accent for the more animated tutti frequently occurring in Dvorak. One could hear most of the impetus for this already present. Vigorous stringendo with which he invested starting the finale made the case.

Spiccato, fluent work on fingerboard, confidence to make animated flourish out of much of this, together with sensitive interaction with wind principals of DSO Berlin and Wei Lu made complete what Moser brought to this. It was still moreover confidently the very noble sentiment and line and rich tone one will most likely recall of Moser's playing the Dvorak. Cheers and mostly well achieved encore of Bach’s first sarabande (G Major) for unaccompanied cello were both richly deserved A dove-tailing of two lines in first half of the Bach was self-conscious; once past halfway, Moser made introspectively enraptured supple, focused, noble line out of all the rest. May we hear much more of Moser and thus pick up how Moser will most likely be able to take his playing from here.

If it was not for what risk-taking occurred during Sokhiev’s interpretation of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, mostly delivered well, I might have quickly deduced that what he brought here to Berlin was hardly more than case of ‘specialty of the house.’ Witness however the steeply arched, bombastic affect that Gergiev endowed this piece on a much hyped Vienna Philharmonic release of the same some years back. Little of this seems to have rubbed off on his student here; it also hardly sounds as though I write of same person conducting this as I did on Russian repertoire before.

A fine imaginative, attentive sense of narrative coursed throughout so very familiar terrain. When there might arrive mild understatement of at times overly emphatic internal tempo instructions on the composer’s part, it was always with long view of the whole picture in mind - deftly stated as such. No definitive interpretation of this piece surfaces yet, but Sokhiev here is still only thirty-three. Aim of being headed at least somewhat in the right direction certainly seems unmistakable.

A few miscalculations, mistakes occasionally belied someone experienced being on the podium, but the youthful spirit with which he engaged this music, for instance the fine swagger he gave the opening of the finale and coda restatement spoke very highly of how he had prepared us so well earlier for what would transpire. Lithe feel for the third movement, with open rustle of fresh breeze throughout its trio section and beautifully, subtly calibrated figuration from there into return of main section all sounded very fresh..

It was clear from the first few minutes of this Tchaikovsky Fifth – I can happily report - we were not embarking on approach to something of fate-obsessed, metaphysical aspirations, such as one will pick up in one way from Bernstein (DGG) and more achieved on surface, brilliantly, 1970’s Karajan - or as odd hybrid between - Eschenbach (Ondine). If so, as from someone with Sokhiev’s limited experience, there would be a much different review to read. Sokhiev gave us a Tchaikovsky Fifth in what impact it might have had, intimating cross between 1960’s Karajan and Mravinsky, without achieving as confident security of the former or interpretative depth capable of the latter

Sokhiev’s simple doleful handling of first movement introduction, with his extending out of (dotted) half notes in fate motto for clarinets, with it barely perceptible his doing so immediately revealed sense of aspiration for some aesthetic finesse with this music. No less was it so with the long breathed wistful sigh he made out of opening of both exposition and recapitulation from both strings with lithe accompanying winds, and then dourly introspective bassoon respectively. It is only perhaps on the surface that what resembled a miscalculation was a marked early slow down for final chain of restatements of opening subject as such to close the first movement. Transitions otherwise were effortlessly achieved. Youthful impetuosity with a few moments, such as bridge transitions each time to second theme unexaggeratedly emerged fresh.

Beautiful too was the weighted introduction to the Andante - that Sokhiev made emphatically slow (but pulsated with intent of keeping the line alive). This then remained an Andante - as something to have organically emerged out of how the first movement ends. If one sought bombastic rhetoric at key nodal points here, one looked in vain. More primary on Sokhiev’s mind was how to always sustain a continual sense of narrative throughout this, even past fleeting doubt of his handling of one or two transitions therein. A slight phrasing from behind of clarinet seemed overt, starting middle section to all this; such concern also only proved fleeting. Lines for solo horn were long-breathed, but with Sokhiev requesting a Slavic inspired affectation of Gallic formed embouchure in playing horn for sake of desirable color, regardless what risk.

A certainly rapid-fire approach to much of the finale brilliantly closed the concert, but while similar in pace to Mravinsky or Gergiev, eschewing excessive bombast of the latter. Heavily accented start to the Exposition for amassed strings alone came across portentous. The shove into rapid brass re-statement in C Major of ‘fate’ was risky, for how transition into the Development realistically should work. Without any derailing or threat of such, all proceeded organically from what had opened up here.

The opening of the finale, eschewing grandiosity, certainly something just to stand on its own as so much rhetoric Sokhiev revealed being interpretively mature to realize, lest one prefer much empty hectoring instead. Sokhiev instead proceeded with fine swagger, such as with stepping out for a brisk walk on morning of bright sunlight over remaining frost on the ground. Sokhiev in the coda subtly pointed out dark chromatic progression in undergirding brass to violins’ unison ‘fate’ motif in E Major to bring us full circle from whence things started.. Brilliant, closing flourish to all this came across most refreshing.

My only trepidation about writing in as such is that of too much a push this still fledgling career receives today. This is first time apparent to me there is indeed a real gift here not only for orchestral, but more so for operatic work. The repertoire is vast, challenges, temptations great, such as have already tripped up greater men than, at thirty-three, Sokhiev. He stepped in for Mehta in Seoul for Haydn 104 and Brahms 4 (for his VPO debut?) last fall. There are subtleties with Brahms 4 that must still confound eager youth - youth nothing to disparage. More than immediate success, one can best wish Mr. Sokhiev much prudence in planning what may result in rewarding career ahead for him.

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