Photo credit: Torsten Kjellstrand, NPR
Taking over the stage for the final evening of this year’s Spring for Music festival, Christoph Eschenbach led the National Symphony in an all-Russian tribute to longtime music director and famed cellist Mstislav Rostropovich—not only a pivotal player in the orchestra’s development, but an international ambassador for delivering the music of 20th-century Russia to Western audiences.
Comprising works of Rodion Shchedrin, Alfred Schnittke, and Shostakovich, the program was a riveting account of the orchestra’s love for their former conductor, beginning with Shchedrin’s Slava, Slava, written in 1997 to commemorate Rostropovich’s 70th birthday. A brief and bright fanfare, the work had a sense of underlying menace and foreboding, despite a full battery of gleaming hammered percussion.
The star of the evening was surely the young violist David Aaron Carpenter, who gave a virtuosic account of Schnittke’s feverish Viola Concerto. Ranging from Shostakovich-esque chorales to cryptic waltzes, the concerto is a clear example of the composer’s unique orchestration, one that included a large wind, brass, and percussion roster, piano and harpsichord, as well as the absence of both violin sections.
Rounding out the program was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, receiving a fresh account under Eschenbach’s tight control. The first movement’s progression from funereal string melody to military cacophony was expertly paced, and what the National Symphony lacked in terms of uniquely glorious sound they more than made up for in rhythmic precision.
The string body gave an emotional account of the symphony’s elegiac third movement, complemented by moving solos from the principal flute, oboe, and clarinet, while the finale’s final moments were given the pompous and deliberate pacing championed by Rostropovich during his tenure. Rather than being seen as the individual's triumph in moving from darkness to light, Rostropovich deemed the series of repeated, heavily pronounced A’s (251 of them) as the hammering of nails in the coffin—a perfectly suited image, given the work’s premiere at the height of the Stalin regime and the composer’s all-consuming obsession with his own death.