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Classical Review: BSO Features Finnish Conductor and Repertoire

Fischer Delivers Heartfelt Rendition of Sibelius Violin Concerto

By Lindy Blackburn 
and Rosa Cao

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Paavo Berglund, conductor

Julia Fischer, violin

Symphony Hall

Friday, Oct. 21, 1:30 p.m.

Who has time to go to a BSO concert at 1:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon?

Quite a few people, it turns out: large constituencies of aged retirees, the independently wealthy, and the odd delinquent student together filled a good portion of Symphony Hall at last week’s matinee performance of Sibelius’ “Violin Concerto” and Shostakovich’s “Eighth Symphony,” conducted by Paavo Berglund.

Berglund is known for his affinity for Sibelius, a fellow Finn, but the main attraction was soloist Julia Fischer, the acclaimed 23-year-old violinist from Munich, Germany, who endeared herself to the audience with a soulful performance of the composer’s well-known and well-loved concerto. Her rendition was clean and firm, with a level of technical perfection suitable for a major competition.

The program notes that “Sibelius opposes rather than meshes solo and orchestra” in this concerto; at her relatively slow tempo, the orchestra had trouble keeping up with Fischer’s subtle phrasing and musical tenderness (though they had no qualms about dragging her through periods of their own rhythmic banality). Despite this, Fischer was able to summon a convincing performance, playing with both refinement and musical sophistication.

Fischer’s youth and energy contrasted markedly with Berglund’s fragile demeanor; the 76-year-old maestro had to be helped on stage by two assistants. Still, conductors (and their careers) are known for longevity: Toscanini and Klemperer were giving concerts in their 80s, while Haitink and Rostropovich, also in their 70s, are still going strong.

This season’s BSO seems to enjoy playing loudly — in the Shostakovich, sometimes deafeningly so. The players might have felt a little repressed after working so hard to be delicate in the Adagio of the Sibelius; accordingly, the Shostakovich was used as therapy. In any case, Berglund received a good return on his investment, at least when measured in orchestral volume per inch of conductor movement.

Shostakovich’s symphonies have been described as long and almost unbearably tragic; the Eighth in particular became known as the “Poem of Suffering,” an epic on the vision of war at over an hour in length.

The piece builds tension in “foreboding grief” through the long (almost 30 minutes) first movement. Two fast movements follow, typical Shostakovich with strong downbeats and few legatos, a “world of full-blown self-important militarism, seen through the lens of grotesque caricature,” according to the program notes. The work climaxes in the fourth movement, Largo, with tremendous sequences that make use of the entire orchestra, cymbals and all. The fifth and final movement, which featured many melancholy solos by the principal musicians — always returning to the same recurring theme — created a welcome melodic change from the constant rhythmic barrage of the previous movements. Many passages showed off the BSO’s fine winds and brass.

The symphony was exhausting — as a work about the tragedy of war probably should be. Overcome with the weight of mortality, much of the audience no longer had the energy for the type of rousing ovation that had followed the Sibelius.