Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich were the best-known Russian composers of the 20th century, a recognition that probably helped keep the ones who remained in the country alive. Stravinsky moved to Switzerland early on – visiting a summer house in his parents’ native Ukraine while he could – and ended up in Los Angeles by way of Paris. But it was rough sledding for Prokofiev, who quit a self-imposed exile during the 1920s to return to an oppressive regime, and Shostakovich, who never left the country.
Ukrainian-born Prokofiev studied in St. Petersburg, and was there for the February Revolution in 1917, spurring him to travel and live abroad for almost two decades. During this time he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3, a piece reflecting Prokofiev’s own considerable keyboard skill.
Soloist Alexei Grynyuk was every bit the master of the work, easily able to combine the percussive nature of the solo part with the sweeping lyricism that informs it. The opening movement demonstrates its extremes from the start, as the first theme – insistent, worried – nevertheless has a legato nature that contrasts vividly with the second theme’s jackhammer clatter. The second movement’s theme and variations can sound like a handful of different pieces if the sense of unity isn’t realized, but Grynyuk and conductor Volodymyr Sirenko were well in control of the architecture of the piece. Which is also needed to launch the smoldering third movement, a battle between soloist and orchestra even as themes marital and romantic clash en route. By the finish, with an accelerando that’s nowhere in the score, Grynyuk was negotiating arpeggios of seconds at blistering speed before crashing it all home with a flourish so big he nearly swept himself off the bench. Not surprisingly, it brought the crowd to its feet, and won a gorgeously played encore of Chopin’s Nocturne in B Major, Op. 9 No. 3.
Sirenko positioned the violins on either side of the podium, à la Stokowski, which helped them hold their own against the maelstrom issuing from the upstage brass and percussion as Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite kicked into gear. The work’s 1910 premiere revolutionized ballet; this 1919 suite offers the highlights, with plenty of orchestral fire ranging from the primitive frenzy of the Infernal Dance to a Debussy-esque sweetness in the Berceuse. However revolutionary it was in its time, it’s now a crowd-pleaser and finished the first half triumphantly.
Which is good, because Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is an emotionally layered journey prickling with a political past. Written in 1937, after the composer had been condemned by a fatuous Pravda notice, it was intended (said he) to restore him to good graces. But its triumph is laced with satire and its melancholy is as gut-wrenching as it gets.
It’s an orchestral showpiece, to be sure, and section-to-section balance is crucial. Given the liveliness of the Troy Music Hall, some of the sound – especially that of the strings – took so long to decay that it muddied the texture, but when brass and percussion held forth it was soul-stirring.
The piece opens with a defiant look towards Beethoven’s Ninth, replacing that work’s descending fourths and fifths with fifths and minor sixths going every which way. Linking all four movements is a pattern of three notes that appears almost immediately, a repeated A, that either halts the proceedings or lurks beneath other events.
And that first movement previews what’s to come: A diabolical scherzo that at once celebrates and mocks peasant music-making, a gut-wrenching Largo that turns a religious-sounding chorale into pure misery, and a final movement that dances in army boots. As the orchestra’s conductor laureate, Theodore Kuchar, pointed out in a pre-concert talk, we who grew up with Leonard Bernstein’s celebrated recording of the piece learned that last section all wrong: where Bernstein made it sound triumphant, later scholarship revealed that its power is contained in a more deliberate approach, which Sirenko and the orchestra dove into with a transcendent passion.
We could have trudged home with shaken emotions, but a pair of encores restored good spirits and delighted the many transplanted Ukrainians in the house. First was the overture to the opera Taras Bulba by Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko, based on the novella by Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol. Next: “Melody” from still-living Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk’s score for the 1982 film The High Pass. And the enthusiastic audience would have stayed for much, much more.
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, Troy Chromatic Concerts, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Feb. 16
update: authorship attribution fixed