One of the highlights of conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith's career to date is a series of recordings he made some years ago in the Soviet Union, among them a vividly characterized Shostakovich First Symphony. Well, he came remarkably close to duplicating that performance Friday in Symphony Hall, only this time not with the Moscow Philharmonic but with the Utah Symphony.
The result was the finest Shostakovich First I have heard from this orchestra, and that was true from the chamber-like textures of the opening movement to the corrosive splendor of the finale.Oh, here and there the brass might have been steadier. But solos generally were deftly illuminated, managing to communicate not only this music's wit and poignancy but also its inner tension. Thus the flavorful woodwinds in the first movement stood out against the pizzicato strings and the controlled climaxes. Ditto the energetic scherzo, whose trio, here taken deliberately, seemed almost suspended in space.
Also notable was Ricklen Nobis' strongly profiled keyboard support and, in the final two movements, the eerily affecting violin and cello solos of Ralph Matson and Stephen Emerson. But it was the conductor who knit the whole together, with well-chosen tempos and an emotional overview that encompassed both the unease of the quieter pages and the searing catharsis of the rest.
Indeed if I have a general complaint about Smith, it would be that he doesn't always focus things as sharply as he might. But that was less of a problem in the Shostakovich than in the other two works on the program, Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" and the Brahms "Naenie."
In the Brahms, which opened the evening, it was tempting to lay this to the Utah Symphony Chorus, which certainly brought the requisite fervor to this solemn song of consolation - and the correct language, in this case German - but not always the clarity one heard from the orchestra. Again, though, things moved well, with a disciplined warmth, and in the Stravinsky, which followed, it was in the orchestra that one first noticed a muddying of the textures.
The last is of course an unusual work, in that it not only dispenses with violins and violas but, at the composer's behest, warmth and sentiment altogether. Yet it remains one of the supreme masterworks of the 20th century, largely, I think, because of the feeling it generates behind that mask of severity.
Again, under Smith's direction both orchestra and chorus tended to blur the counterpoint - for example, in the otherwise strongly built double fugue of the second section, a setting of Psalm 39. But in the concluding setting of Psalm 150 the reverential expanse of the "alleluia" registered tellingly, as did the quivering excitement of the Allegro. Here, moreover, the chorus was arguably at its best, whether in its controlled expression or its vivid underlining of Stravinsky's deliberate fragmentation of the Latin text.
- REPEAT PERFORMANCE: Leonard Bernstein's recording of the "Symphony of Psalms," on CBS, may not be as austere as Stravinsky's own, but his use of an all-male choir and added interpretive punch help make it the current choice.
Likewise his highly emotive Shostakovich First, on DG. After which I would opt at present for Ashkenazy (London), Haitink (London) or Smith (Sheffield Lab) or, in the far distant past, Markevitch or Rodzinski.