Cellist Hornung upstages Beethoven’s Fifth with dark Shostakovich

Mon Dec 05, 2022 at 8:40 am
By Catherine Reese Newton
Maximilian Hornung was the soloist in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Utah Symphony Saturday night at Abravanel Hall.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had top billing at the Utah Symphony this weekend. But, as rousing as the orchestra’s performance of that symphonic favorite was on Saturday night, arguably the best thing about it was that it got thousands of people through the doors of Abravanel Hall to hear Maximilian Hornung’s stunning performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1.

It was clear from the opening bars, with Hornung’s strongly accented delivery of the concerto’s insistent motto theme, that this was going to be a memorable performance. The German cellist possesses formidable technique, with exceptional smoothness and clarity at the upper reaches of the instrument’s register and supernatural delicacy at the bottom end. 

This concerto is noted for its difficulty, especially in the extended cadenza that makes up its third movement. Here Hornung put on a breathtaking display of dynamic, emotional and technical range, with lightning-fast runs, deft left-hand pizzicato and double-stopped passages that could make you swear there were two cellists onstage.

The orchestra, under the clear direction of German conductor Markus Poschner, matched Hornung’s intensity. As challenging as the score is for the soloist, the concerto is also notable for the extent to which individual sections and musicians in the orchestra engage directly with him or her. Partners in gripping dialogues with Hornung included Jessica Danz (horn), Erin Svoboda-Scott (clarinet) and Alex Marshall (celesta). Timpanist Eric Hopkins also earned cheers for bringing the piece to an emphatic close.

Poschner wasn’t out to reinvent any wheels with his interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth; rather, his approach was to let Beethoven be Beethoven. He conducted from memory, with an economy of gesture and the air of someone catching up with an old friend.

That isn’t to say that the performance was in any way perfunctory. Poschner’s tempos were taut, but never rushed. His pacing was sound as the orchestra guided listeners along Beethoven’s path from darkness and dread to affirmation and triumph. The interplay among the woodwinds in the second movement felt spontaneous and fun, as did principal oboist Zachary Hammond’s solo in the first movement. 

Poschner also shook up the stage arrangement—with first and second violins in the “split-strings” seating that music director Thierry Fischer favored early in his Utah Symphony tenure; and timpanist George Brown nestled between the low brass and the cellos for the Beethoven—a slight departure from the routine that helped freshen up the sound.

The evening opened with Lithuanian composer Raminta Šerkšnytė’s Fires, composed in 2010 as a kind of companion to Beethoven’s Fifth. It’s a remarkably vivid two-movement depiction of glowing embers, flickering flames and raging conflagration.

Poschner and the orchestra captured its nuances beautifully, with the brass glissandos particularly delightful. The explicit nod to Beethoven at the piece’s conclusion brought appreciative chuckles from Saturday’s audience.

Conductor David Robertson and pianist Behzod Abduraimov perform music of Adams, Prokofiev and Shostakovich with the Utah Symphony December 9 and 10. utahsymphony.org

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