2020 started with news of yet another anti-semitic atrocity in the United States. My musical 2020 started with a new recording of that finest of all musical acts of resistance to anti-semitism, Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 13 in B-Flat minor “Babi Yar”. It’s a setting of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko for orchestra, bass soloist and men’s chorus and it’s powerful stuff. It’s often performed at consistently high energy and volume and seething with anger. Riccardo Muti treats it rather differently. The recording, featuring bass Alexey Tikhomirov, the Chicago Symphony and the men of their chorus, doesn’t lack drama or intensity but it’s also often intensely lyrical. When require, Tikhomirov and the chorus produce some gorgeously beautiful, even delicate, singing and the orchestra do the same. There’s not much of the blaring brass one associates with the Leningrad recordings of the Shostakovich symphonies. Instead there’s some wonderful playing, especially by the low brass. The motif in the fourth movement, curiously reminiscent of the Fafner scene in Siegfried, features a sort of duet between tuba(?) and timpani to great effect. This is very fine music making.
The recording, on the CSO’s Resound label, is exemplary. The textures are crystal clear and the overall ambience feels like a proper symphony hall. This is the memorial for Babi Yar.
It’s seven years since Elizabeth Krehm died and last night we heard the seventh memorial concert organised by her sister Rachel at Christ Church Deer Park. As ever I was amazed and delighted at the resources the extended Krehm family can draw on. The Canzona Chamber Players Orchestra is essentially a scratch operation but in the hands of conductor Evan Mitchell it’s always a pleasure to listen to.
Staging art song and chamber works happens in Toronto but not a lot. Over the last few years I’ve seen interesting shows from Against the Grain, Collectif and UoT Opera among others. As it’s something I tend to enjoy I was pleased to catch the opening performance of Opera 5’s Hindemith and Shostakovich program; itself the first in a proposed series called Open Chambers.
The Toronto Summer Music Festival opened last night at Koerner Hall with a concert by the Escher Quartet who came in at quite short notice for the venerable Borodins who had to pull out due to illness. The theme of this year’s festival is “Reflections of Wartime” as perhaps befits the 100th anniversary of the Great War. That said, I’m not sure how last night’s programme fitted the theme. None of Schumann’s Quartet no.1, Shostakovich’s Quartet no. 9 nor Tchaikovsky’s Quartet no. 1 have any obvious war references.
It’s that time of year when it’s traditional to do best of the year lists. Fortunately this is all about music because in most other respects 2016 was a bit of a horror show. So here goes. As far as opera proper was concerned it was a pretty good year. There were no real howlers in the COC’s season. It was solid and, at its best, better than that, For me, Ariodante was the standout; an intelligent, thought provoking production backed up by extremely good acting and singing. I was really expecting to like the Claus Guth Marriage of Figaro more than I did. I enjoyed it but I was a bit perplexed by the lightening up that had taken place since Salzburg in 2006. Opera Atelier had their best show in quite a while with Lucio Silla but even Wallis Giunta couldn’t save a misconceived Dido and Aeneas.
The real monument to those; young and old, Jew and gentile, who died in the horror that was Babi Yar are Yevtushenko’s words and Shostakovich’s searing setting of them in the opening movement of his thirteenth symphony. It’s a symphony that combines sheer horror with the kind of blistering irony that is unique to Shostakovich. It’s a work that I first met in my teens and like so much Shostakovich it has run like a leitmotif through my adult life. So I was deeply moved to hear it given a red blooded, almost balls out Russian style, performance by the TSO last night. No doubt a Russian conductor; Andrey Boreyko, and a superb Russian bass soloist; Petr Migunov, played a large part in that but so did the players of the TSO and the men of the Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers. The brass was strident and the percussion very loud where it needed to be though there was delicacy too from the rumble of the opening line quoted above to the faint dying away of the last note. Most excellent.
There was also a very nice performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 but that’s not what I was there for. This program will be repeated at Roy Thomson Hall tonight at at 7.30pm and tomorrow at 3pm at the George Weston Recital Hall.
Shostakovich’s The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District has become a modern classic but only after it was the cause, or at least purported cause, of his disgrace under Stalin in which the work was criticised both for the subject matter and the “bourgeios formalism” of the music. A revised version of the work was made into a film under the title Katerina Izmailova in 1966 as part of Shostakovich’s formal rehabilitation in the Soviet Union.