Shostakovich, Mahler, Takemitsu

January 10, 2020

in Concerts


A Far Cry
Sonja Tengblad, soprano
Dashon Burton, baritone
Jordan Hall, Boston
January 10, 2020 8:00pm

Dashon Burton (baritone), Sonja Tengblad (soprano)

Dashon Burton (baritone), Sonja Tengblad (soprano)

An exquisitely performed series of works by one of Boston’s premier chamber ensembles and two brilliant vocal soloists.
Toru Takemitsu (1030-1996)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 14, Op. 135

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Adagietto from Symphony No. 5

I had heard Sonja Tengblad perform in A Far Cry concert last spring when they joined with Lorelei, an eight-woman vocal ensemble of which Tengblad is a member. Though I got moments of insight into her capacities as a soloist in that concert, I did not get the full-tilt awareness of her talents until this concert, in which she sang along with baritone Dashon Burton in A Far Cry’s exquisite rendering of Shostakovich’s difficult but majestic 14th Symphony. It was stirring.

Both Tengblad and Burton are magnificent vocalists and complemented one another beautifully in this challenging, jarring, and sometimes painful, work. Despite the general weightiness of the material, their joint sonorities, the sheer richness of their tones, and their capacities to weave the narrative dramatically and convincingly, made the experience singularly rewarding.

The program began with a rendering of Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem, a somber but thoughtful piece that opened with a whisper, grew into a ferocious rebellion, attempted a theme, and then deconstructed it, all in the service of returning to the whisper. The Criers performed superbly, with solo violin and viola interchanging inspirations with wonderful subtlety.

The Shostakovich Symphony formed the main part of the program, performed with some brief stops between movements, but otherwise as a singular, long, evocative ride. Each of the eleven sections of the symphony, which is really a song cycle writ large, has text by a different poet. Many of those are by French surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire, with some by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a couple by German romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and one by nineteenth century Russian-German Romantic poet, Wilhelm K├╝chelbecker. The whole cycle was inspired by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Songs of Dances and Death, a clear indication of the lighthearted (not!) basis for the material.

At the heart of it is a long piece, interestingly entitled Lorelei, with text by Guillaume Apollinaire. A ferocious allegro duet, it unfolded in the middle of various more longingly attenuated pieces, indicating a ferocity that exploded out of the substrate of the piece’s mournful demeanor. One might regard this as signature Shostakovich, a vital composer who suffered under decade after decade of Stalinist repression, and whose underlying funereal demeanor is frequently offset by his playful, rapturous and sometimes highly animated rebellions against the tenor of the times.

In this song-cycle, the image of the Lorelei, so beautifully instantiated by Tengblad’s wonderfully sculpted voice and expression, represents that kind of insistent rebelliousness, the daemonic urge towards life that prevails amidst the horrors of extended social suffocation.

One must mention, in the course of honoring this wonderful musical performance, the extremely evocative dramatic sensibility Tengblad conveyed in the course of her more ferocious moments. Burton, as well, was wonderfully evocative, but typically in a more sedate and less ferocious way.

Varied, lyrical, expressive to the nth degree, the rendering of the Shostakovich was a cataclysmically rewarding experience. A Far Cry played with exquisite precision and gave the vocal soloists the kind of articulate and lyrical support they most heartily deserved.

With no intermission, the concert ended with – what can I say – the most heartrending, beautiful execution of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony I’ve ever heard. The Criers did it with such genuine delicacy, with such attention to the transitional details, and with such collective heart, that it was truly the distillation of the wonders of the piece. I’ve heard it many times, but never quite like this.

Further notes on the performances:
Takemitsu Requiem
A whisper, like the beginning of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, opens the piece. It grows to explosiveness in short order, but a drawn and attenuated explosiveness. Spatial searching ensues with The Criers leaning heartfully together. A soft viola calls attention. A theme tries to emerge but it deconstructs – this is, after all, a requiem, which decapitates its own theme. But something struggles to emerge from the gloom like the hatching of an egg, repeatedly, in staccato. The solo violin calls out wistfully and longingly.

Shostakovich Symphony No. 14
The violins come from nowhere. Burton, rich and profound, enters, chanting. He reaches the the high registers in appeal. A great slide on the bass signals a transition.

Tengblad enters, ferociously. Amid the intensity a bit of circus music erupts from the violins. She has a rich, sonorous soprano that reaches from below. Castanets and bells introduce a spirited dialogue between soprano and baritone. Where Burton was purely sonorous before, he is now energized and evocative. Tengblad’s voice covers the agitation of the strings like honey, with which she paints gently and broadly. He, like Wotan, is wild and fierce, and the orchestra follows with a spirited frenzy. With urgent appeals, both voices bring on the enraptured orchestra and then a singular chime. Tengblad ascends above the fray in a unitary appeal. How her voice resonates so intimately with the orchestra is magical; and Burton’s is like gentle earth. Rafael Popper-Keizer’s singing cello aria leads to Tengblad’s quietly breathed utterance – spectacular! The cello’s singular harmonies introduce her again and she adds volume and reverberation, and her dramatic talents, now visible through gesture and facial expression, inscribe themselves as notable.

Drums begin an insistent march and Tengblad calls forth. Then the strings take off, marvelously and meticulously. Suggestions of Prokoviev’s Classical Symphony emerge. The bells ring, setting off a torrent. The orchestra erupts but Tengblad calls out over them. She has a fabulous dramatic sense of urgency. Burton enters and their dialogue is, in some ways, frenziedly hilarious. Tengblad, quite an actress, shapes her voice like clay, suggestively and articulately, while placing her hand on her hip, sassy and fierce. Burton emerges, like Sarastro in The Magic Flute, vibrant and wise. Extended bass pizzicatos set a monastic mood, with an extended sense of pacing through a cloister. The Criers are solid and specific throughout. Burton’s chanting is mellifluous, his appeal so gently wrought, as though out of softened metal.

Now we hear the Shostakovich factory, clanging away. The Burton hearkens like a fierce manager, the terrible overlord. The orchestra is in high drive, exquisitely doing its thing. A beautiful two cello duet yields to Burton and the cellos, as a whole, enter with a lullaby. Rafael Popper-Keizer on cello matches Burton’s mellifluous tone with arching grandeur, and a wonderful cello choir supports Popper-Keizer’s rich cello contralto solo.

Tengblad merges sweetly and determined with the distilled violins, excellently transported.

Together Tengblad and Burton lead a search, full throated in appeal. A snare drum responds to the strings, heartily. And it ends, to quote T.S. Eliot, not with a bang but a whisper.

Mahler Adagietto from Symphony No. 5
A harp enters the fray. Like taffy, the circus makes one weep. So out of nowhere. So tender and unremitting. And those cellos! How they dream amid the sea. Like the Liebestod in Tristan und Isolde, unremittingly intense. The overtones emerge like spectra in a waterfall. The Criers outdo themselves. The main theme returns, and the heartbreak. A gentle dawn rises – it comes from nowhere – the mystery of emergence, into radiance, sweet recompense for the dominant thematic agonies – though so beautifully rendered – of the preceding program. Unbelievably well done.


– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)

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