Review: A Shostakovich Symphony Finally Reaches the Philharmonic

When the stirring central tune of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12 first emerges, a few minutes into the piece, it’s very soft in the cellos and basses. The model for this moment is clear: Very softly, in the cellos and basses, is how the “Ode to Joy” is introduced in Beethoven’s Ninth.

Beethoven’s Ninth, of course, is at the center of the repertory, while Shostakovich’s 12th, “The Year 1917,” had never been played by the New York Philharmonic before Thursday, when it was a vehicle for the conductor Rafael Payare’s debut with the orchestra at David Geffen Hall.

Why has this symphony been neglected? Shostakovich’s reputation in the West, even after the Cold War ended, was founded on a sense of him as a kind of dissident of the heart, his music covertly opposed to the Soviet regime he outwardly served — or at least attempted to make peace with.

But it’s hard to find ambivalence or coded irony in the 12th, which tells a triumphal tale of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and is dedicated to that struggle’s hero, Lenin. It premiered in 1961, a year after its composer finally joined the Communist Party. (How willingly he joined is one of the many questions that persist, unanswerable, about his true beliefs, and so about the relationship between his music and the dangerous political situation he faced.)

Unlike his 11th Symphony from a few years before, into which some read secret sympathies with the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary, there seems to be little in the 12th but positivity; even in quieter moments, blazing victory is never far away. I suppose the dark undercurrent that briefly pursues Lenin in his countryside hiding place outside St. Petersburg in the second movement could also suggest the fear Shostakovich might have felt. But here, that feels like a reach.

The 12th wouldn’t, at this point, need to be disqualified from programs merely for being sincerely created propaganda — though I wouldn’t follow the program note’s glib assurance that we can forget the historical context, since “‘The Year 1917’ was over a century ago, and the Soviet Union is gone.” Tell that to the current president of Russia.

It was valuable to get a chance to hear this symphony live, but it does come off a bit repetitive and thin, however wearyingly loud and dense it gets. You will not want to hear that earworm central tune again.

In 40 minutes — its four movements flowing together without pause, and revolutionary songs quoted liberally throughout — the piece depicts a Petersburg (then Petrograd) simmering with chaos and tension, ready for battle; then Lenin’s retreat to plan his next move; the thunderous beginning of the revolution; and “The Dawn of Humanity,” the fortissimo, major-key utopia of Soviet life.

It’s not the fault of Payare, 42, the music director of the San Diego Symphony and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, that it’s difficult to build tension in those final 10 minutes or so, which manage to be both relentless and fitful.

His neat, spirited rendition of the work didn’t stint the mellower second movement, in which successive solos — the bassoonist Judith LeClair, the clarinetist Anthony McGill, the trombonist Colin Williams — advanced an atmosphere of doleful meditation. The Philharmonic seems to be steadily acclimating to its newly renovated hall, though the brasses remain extremely bright-sounding at full force, sharpened rather than golden.

As the orchestra’s music director, Jaap van Zweden, regularly shows, a conducting style that fits the punchy extremity of Shostakovich is not always right for Beethoven, whose Piano Concerto No. 2 was overemphatic and sluggish on Thursday, particularly in a plodding Adagio. The veteran soloist, Emanuel Ax, seemed to be searching for a middle ground between his pearly geniality and Payare’s starker phrasing, and the results sounded unsettled. Ax seemed more suavely at ease in his encore, Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s “Ständchen.”

The concert opened with another Philharmonic premiere, William Grant Still’s brooding “Darker America” (1924), an ambiguous, 13-minute dreamscape of haziness, low-slung blues and a subdued conclusion.

This was the first time the orchestra has put Still’s work on a subscription program in over 20 years, and it will be followed in March by his Symphony No. 2, “Song of a New Race.” To hear so much new to this ensemble — even Beethoven’s Second, while hardly a rarity, is probably the least played of his piano concertos — is a heartening sign of searching artistic leadership.

New York Philharmonic

This program continues through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.

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