Dimitry Sitkovetsky: The Maestro Violinist

The Azerbaijani violinist Gave a Brilliant Performance of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto While Conductor Ion Marin Stepped to Lead the Vienna Symphony in an Impassioned Second Half.

It might have been a musical disappointment to find a note in the program at the Wiener Konzerthaus on Apr. 19 that the renowned Israeli conductor Eliahu Inbal, suddenly taken ill, would be replaced with a little known Romanian Ion Martin. Inevitable, a program change was requested, and instead of Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensymphonie (1915), we would hear Dimitri Shostakovich’s most popular work, his Symphony No. 5 (1937).

Azerbaijani violinist Dimitry Sitkovetsky performing with the Vienna Symphony on Apr. 19 | Photo: J. Henry Fair

But it could also be considered an interesting surprise: The change highlighted two prolific Soviet composers and their uneasy relations to that regime in the 1930s, and in fact offered a more coherent and welcome overall musical integrity to the evening. The Shostakovich would follow a first half, as originally planned, of the Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto (1935), with the virtuosic solo performed by the Azerbaijani violinist Dimitry Sitkovetsky.

The 1930s were a tense time for music in the Soviet Union. In January 1936, an influential article appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda entitled ‘Chaos instead of Music,’ denouncing Shostakovich’s successful opera Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk, accusing its creator’s music as tasteless and deliberately ignoring “of what Soviet audience looks for and expects in music.”

Though published anonymously, it is assumed that Stalin personally had written this sharp critique; in the context of purges carried out by the Soviet leader, this public shaming was widely regarded as a death sentence for the composer and his family.

Only this historical context allows us to understand the creation of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, as a successful attempt to reconcile his fragile and tense relations with the Soviet State. It is one of the early characteristic works by the composer, expressing the musical violence with full orchestral forces, particularly of a strong trombone choir, a hard string sound with little vibrato, contrasted by lyrical slow movements with rich instrumental colors.

The performance by the Vienna Symphony on this evening was formidable and the extremes sharply drawn, inspired by the conductor’s vivid musical articulation. The second movement of the work, based on a dance-like tune, allowed particularly the bassoons and contra-bassoons to open the movement with its unmistakable humoristic but nevertheless highly virtuosic quality, which eventually leads into triumphant brass choir.

The conductor Martin, while clearly describing the movement in gestures and body language, did, however, little to direct the musical flow, so the orchestra convincingly took the lead. The final movement, on the other hand, equally effective musically, drives towards the climax of the work with a majestic ending, strong in volume and supported by a large percussion section.

The clear star of the evening, however, was Dimitry Sitkovetsky and his energetic and passionate performance of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. Trained as a conductor himself, he had clear control over the whole orchestra, directing individual sections with a sharp lift of his violin or with his eyes, turning almost his back to the audience. The conductor, clearly unprepared, seemed lost in that piece, following the orchestra rather than directing it, tapping his foot audibly at times to the orchestral accompaniment.

The warm tone of Sitkovetsky’s violin blended beautifully with the lower strings in the opening, where the Russian folk music inspired main tune was presented first by the soloist on its own and then passed on to the celli and double-basses. The orchestra was well-balanced, never drowning the solo passages.

The theme of the finale has a distinct taste of Spain with its castanets accompanying the dance-inspired movement. The conductor’s dance on the stage matched the musical ideas, but only Sitkovetsky’s steadiness and calmness ensured a satisfying and balanced conclusion.

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