Aziz Shokhakimov in Strasbourg: live concert review

Aziz Shokhakimov in Strasbourg: live concert review

Prokofiev, Shostakovich Simone Lamsma (violin); Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra / Aziz Shokhakimov (conductor). Salle Érasme, Palais de la Musique et des Congrès, Strasbourg, 19.05.2022

Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 25, ‘Classical’ (1917)

Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77 (1948/48)

Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, Suites Nos. 1 & 2 (1936)

In 2021, the young Uzbek conductor Aziz Shokhakimov took up the post of music and artistic director of the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Hans Pfitzner (1909-15 and 1918/19), Otto Klemperer (1915-18), Paul Paray (1929-40), Hans Rosbaud (1940-45) and Alceo Galliera (1964-71). Recently, John Nelson has formed an enduring bond with the orchestra in the music of Berlioz, too, and Nelson’s performances of Roméo et Juliette (Berlioz) are upcoming in both Strasbourg and Paris (Philharmonie); see also my review of Nelson at Strasbourg in October 2021 here.

The programme on this occasion was two contrasting Prokofiev pieces sandwiching a Shostakovich concerto. ‘The idea was a privilege: to make the recording for Warner Classics. We talked with Alain Lanceron, Chairman and Managing Director of Warner Classics; I am a big fan of Prokofiev’s music, I proposed the Fifth Symphony because I have conducted it many times; it was a negotiation with Warner, and we came up with both suites of Romeo and Juliet.First, we thought of doing some excepts, but then I thought why not do both Suites?’

Meeting Shokhakimov prior to the concert (the full interview will be published here shortly) revealed a young man of intellect and dedication. He is clear in what he wants, and obviously conveys that well to the orchestra given the discipline on display in the performance of Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony. Yet there was a sense of play, of fun, to the first movement, too. Shokhakimov’s tempo for the Larghetto was perfectly chosen, moving the music along nicely – the woodwind section excelled, notably the wonderful bassoon of Jean-Christophe Dassonville, the oboe of Sébastien Glot and the flute of Ing-Li Chou. Nowhere was character more in evidence than in the Gavotte (the rustic wind of the Trio piping away, trilling in miraculous unison, with some beautifully witty bassoon anacruses). And how the finale chattered, music to an imaginary (cartoon) film scene.

The original violin soloist for the Shostakovich, Patricia Kopatchinskaya, cancelled with two days notice. Within a few hours, they had found a replacement, and Simone Lamsma took over – Lamsma has recorded a notable Shostakovich First (coupled with Gubaidulina’s violin concerto In Tempus praesens, both with the Netherlands Radio PO – James Gaffigan conducts the Shostakovich: see the Musicweb International review here). That recording certainly impressed Shokhakimov (‘my compliments to this record,’ he joked) and he certainly seemed delighted with Lamsma after their rehearsal. And indeed, there was no doubting that she is attuned to the world of the opening Nocturne – long lines were despatched with blanched tone, the low strings dark and ominous, the orchestra shifting threateningly underneath. Lamsma clearly sees the first movement as one long melodic thread and, supported by Shokhakimov and his players, the first movement became an extended lament. It is a long lament, and concentration never once flagged; timbrally, too, this was an orchestra transformed, bright and breezy in the Prokofiev ‘Classical,’ shadowy and ominous in the Shostakovicb concerto. The Scherzo, too, was no mere ‘joke’ as its name implies: resolute, impeccably together and, frankly, hell-for-leather. Lamsma and the pizzicato Strasbourg strings found a ‘danse macabre’ here, later creating a sense of manic jubilation. The music sounded as if it would explode; two single claps from the audience at the movement end implied someone was inspired to break a social norm, at least for a moment!

The third and fourth movements are notable not only for their power but for the cadenza that connects them. The Passacaglia third movement carried the weight of the world on its shoulders. The orchestral contributions here gave a hint as to what Shokhakimov might bring to Shostakovich symphonies; and when Lamsma entered, her tone took us straight back to the profound ruminations of the first movement. Shostakovich’s mighty way with the passacaglia form is writ large here, its unstoppable slow momentum enabled via Shokhakimov’s rock-solid rhythm. The cadenza between the final two movements was awesome in the literal sense, a tour-de-force, Lamsma’s stoppings real expressions of emotional pain, the whole shaped perfectly. The final ‘Burlesque’ again made no compromises, fearlessly fast, with wind in complete accord with the soloist in the tricky exchanges. Shokhakimov ensured the dark storm clouds of Shostakovich’s scoring loomed dangerously over Lamsma’s virtuosity. Stunning.

An encore from Lamsma –  the Largo from Bach’s Sonata for Solo Violin in C, BWV 1005, hypnotic and a moment of stillness much needed after the Shostakovich. Perfectly chosen; and perfectly executed ,with the loveliest purity of tone and line.

One has to acknowledge again the tremendous sense of discipline in the Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet selections. The violins were so together in the opening ’Folk Dance’ (some superb cornet solos from Vincent Gillig, too); and how wonderful the exchanges between Dassonville’s magnificently pecking-staccato bassoon and the leader Charlotte Juillard’s violin in ‘Scene: the street awakens,' just as Sandrine François' flute solos brought huge beauty to the ‘Madrigal’. A suave ‘Minuet (the arrival of the guests)’ led to a ‘Masks’ that felt just a touch uncontrolled in the hall (interestingly, the microphones for the Medici cast conveyed more detail at places); no doubting, though, the sheer cumulative power of the scene at the balcony, or the orchestral virtuosity at ‘Death of Tybalt’.

The Second Suite similarly comprises seven movements, and it is surely the most famous moment of all from Romeo and Juliet that opens it: ‘Montagues and Capulets,’ those fearsome aggregations of the opening leading to a truly visceral dissonance; perhaps the sustained strings that remain could have started from an even lower dynamic (they are after all marked ppp), but how the strings glowed as they crescendoed. Shokhakimov found great contrast without unnecessary slowing in this movement; the expression came from the phrasing, led by François' flute, later crowned by the shimmer of a celesta. ‘Juliet the Young Girl’ held some glorious cello solos (Alexander Somov), all perfectly paced by Shokhakimov, who also ensured the most tender portrait of ‘Friar Lawrence’ I have ever heard.

Shokhakimov’s resonance with this repertoire really is special. The contained kinetic energy of the ’Danse,’ the caressing tenderness of ‘Romeo and Juliet before parting” and the perfect pacing of ‘Dance of the Antilles Girls’ (with some superb solo violins contributions from Charlotte Juillard again) ceded to a final ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’ that was as intense as any Mahler slow movement, the result of Shokhakimov’s clear understanding of Prokofiev’s harmonic processes and scoring (Prokofiev writes at registral extremes to create tension, not least in the horn lines).

Shokhakimov wants to develop this orchestra into ‘one of the very best in France’; on the present evidence, he’s not far from that goal already. One of the things I asked him was whether he would consider a Prokofiev symphony cycle. ‘Yes, maybe one day’ was the response … watch this space.

This concert is available to subscribers for streaming here.

Colin Clarke