Ludovic Morlot led a supercharged performance of Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 on Thursday night, June 2, at Benaroya Hall.
Two towering works of genius — and a beefed-up, revved-up orchestra to bring those works to life. It’s a recipe for a great concert, as Seattle Symphony audiences discovered on Thursday evening in the first of two performances of the current subscription program.
Music director Ludovic Morlot was on the podium, urging on the combined forces that filled the Benaroya Hall stage to full capacity. They played as if their lives depended on the outcome: committed, vivid performances, full of the fierce energy required by these scores.
The program presented two Russian masterpieces of the 1930s, written in the shadow of Stalin. (Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” was revised in 1948; the Shostakovich Symphony No. 4, a work that likely would have outraged Stalin, was not premiered until 1961, well after the dictator was safely dead.)
Seattle Symphony and Chorale, with the Northwest Boychoir
in works of Shostakovich and Stravinsky
Repeats 8 p.m. Saturday, June 4, at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle, $36-$121. (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
Shostakovich admired the “Symphony of Psalms” enough to create a piano version of the score, which he reportedly presented to Stravinsky when the latter visited the USSR in 1962. It’s easy to understand that admiration; the music is full of subtle harmonies and spectacular scoring. In Thursday’s performance, Morlot gave the Stravinsky score a stately reverence that never lost the forward pulse, and he drew out the brilliant colors of the woodwind choirs that changed like the twist of a kaleidoscope.
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An unusual feature of the “Symphony of Psalms” is the absence of violins and violas, replaced by winds and percussion, and also by the chorus. Morlot replaced the women sopranos and altos of the Seattle Symphony Chorale with members of the Northwest Boychoir, creating an all-male chorus that sang the psalm texts eloquently. Hats off to Joseph Crnko for the chorus’s excellent preparation.
The “Symphony of Psalms” suggests uplifting hope; the Shostakovich Fourth radiates angst. The first movement proceeds with an inexorable pulse, like marching troops; there’s a sense of momentous, stately reverence, but also interruptions and extraordinary juxtapositions. A loud, cataclysmic orchestral segment is interrupted by a tentative rumination from the bassoon (Seth Krimsky), with commentary from the harps. There were string passages that buzzed like impossibly fast, angry bees, and combined orchestral passages of such overwhelming intensity that the sound levels reached the earsplitting mark.
The emotional content of the Fourth is searing; there is an almost violent despair about some of the music, but Shostakovich also knows how to defuse this with the occasional jaunty bassoon solo or a witty little waltz section. Morlot did a fine job of leading all these side trips without losing the focus — that steady, marching tread that propelled the music forward. Finally, a broadly triumphant section gave the basses a steady “lub-dub” heartbeat, which slowly flatlined.
It seemed almost rude to interrupt that final silence with applause, but it was impossible not to. The quality of the performance, the individual solo work from the musicians, and Morlot’s supercharged conducting, all made this program one of the landmarks of the season.