Monday, 3 August 2015

31 July, 2015 BBC Prom 18 ****

Dimitri Shostakovich
An odd pairing: Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E Flat Major (K365) and Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony No 7 in C Major nicknamed the ‘Leningrad’. Any putative link between these two works would be tortuous in the extreme so let’s just treat it as a concert of two halves.

The Mozart piece is not one of great depth and the fact that Katia and Mariella Labèque were playing from the book gives a fair indication of how often it gets an outing. The playing was fluent and spirited enough, with some delicacy in the Andante , but ultimately no silk purse could wrought from this pig’s ear. Only with the brief encore, a dazzling account of the last movement of Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos did we get to experience the dynamism these two can generate.

After the interval the stage filled with ranks of horns and trombones, two harps and a multitude of string players as a mammoth orchestra assembled. Shostakovich wrote the first three movements of the symphony in less than six months whilst posted to the city. After he was reposted, there was extraordinary performance of this symphony in Leningrad during the siege when with only fourteen members of the Radio Orchestra still alive, every available musician from the city’s dwindling population and the army was pressed into service. Watching the huge musical forces assembling in the Albert Hall one could hardly imagine how this heroic performance was achieved. A fictionalised account of this, The Conductor by Sarah Quigley is well worth reading.

Stalin’s reign of terror in the nineteen thirties was so all pervasive and indiscriminate that every citizen, man woman or child, were in constant dread of arrest and almost certain death. Conservative estimates of the number of deaths of soviet citizens for which Stalin was responsible are between seven and eight millions. One story has it that a nine year old girl who was heard humming a western pop song was arrested and never seen again. Such was the terror, there was almost a sense of relief when the Nazis invaded in 1941. But it wasn’t long before the beleaguered population understood that their fate lay in the hands of either one fascist dictator or another.

It was against this background that the Symphony was written. Shostakovich was very clear that this was not a symphony about the siege so much as a threnody for the years of unrelenting misery suffered by the Russian people. And he was able to slip this past Stalin’s censors because they were convinced it was about the Nazi threat. So this is, for the most part a dour and visceral work which speaks of war, and suffering but also shot through with nostalgic memories of a more peaceful times.

Conductor Semyon Bychkov, though a Russian of the post war generation, has a close connection to the events which formed the context of the ‘Leningrad’, not least his own musical training in the Soviet Union during the Cold War era. It was clear in this performance that he has earned a huge amount of respect from the BBC Symphony with whom he holds the Günter Wand Conducting Chair. It is a wonderful thing to witness a great orchestra relish the chance to get their teeth into a substantial and demanding work which does not appear often in the repertoire. There is a fifteen minute section in the first movement which, like Ravel’s Bolero is constructed of a theme underpinned by a hypnotically repeated side drum pattern which is repeated over and over gradually gaining in dynamic and texture. But Bolero it most assuredly is not. This is music that drills into your mind and takes you right to the searing heat of battle. It must some of the most chilling and terrifying music ever penned. And in the hands of Bychkov and the BBC Symphony it was truly mind-blowing.

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