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PROMS 2002

PROM 55: Shostakovich, Symphony no. 2; Beethoven, Symphony no. 9. Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Esa – Pekka Salonen, RAH, 31st August 2002 (ME)

These two works form such an ideal pairing that it seems odd that this was the first Proms outing for the Shostakovich; as it happened, the performance of this piece was the more interesting of the evening, despite its occasional inherent awkwardness. Both works here celebrate unity of aspiration and the brotherhood of man, although the Russian symphony is, of course, far more overtly political, and therein lies its problem for many audiences; how to listen to and even appreciate a work which is not really a symphony at all, which contains so many oddities and which closes with a choral segment where the sung text was described by the composer himself as ‘quite disgusting?’ It was, however, a tribute to this orchestra, conductor and the BBC Symphony Chorus, that one’s attention never flagged, and there were moments when I felt that this work deserves to be heard far more frequently.

The remarkable introduction is built up from seven distinct string parts, played with increasing volume until they slide gracefully into a less well defined collection of sketches: Salonen kept up such a pitch of quiet intensity here that one could hardly help but think of Beethoven’s late quartets, a recollection continued during the long violin solo, beautifully played by the leader. The choral section was less successful, but only because the music itself is problematic; its nearest equivalent is the ‘Musical Placards’ which were meant to be the equivalent of the huge posters of Lenin and various Soviet icons – like religious emblems they served as a daily reminder of the citizen’s duty, and their musical forms were meant to be performed as a kind of secco recitative. The almost – shouting in which the chorus has to indulge here bears similarities to that style, and it was greatly to their credit that this group of singers managed to sound totally convincing whilst singing such formulaic language and brusque notation. I found the cries of ‘Borba! Borba!’ (Struggle! Struggle!) quite moving, and repaired to the bar at the interval in the happy expectation that if the same forces could make this sound so engrossing, the 9th was sure to be an experience to treasure.

Sadly, it was not to be. This is unquestionably one of the great orchestras – the string tone by itself would be enough to convince you of that – and there is no doubt in my mind that Salonen is one of the conductors who really are worth going to see, but this performance of the 9th was so safe, so sanitized, so bland, that it was on the wrong side of neutral. The playing was never less than precise, beautifully detailed and lovingly shaped, but the overall sound was cool, distant and lacking in passion. The Allegro was tentative at times, and the Adagio lost some needed tension in the middle, becoming rather soggy and in need of momentum. The brass playing was generally superb, but the introduction to the Finale did not provide the desired moment of drama, and the whole of the Choral part seemed hurried, as though they really wanted to get it over with, rather than savouring this miraculous piece or even, perhaps, trying to bring it to us as if it were fresh and new.

I sigh inwardly every time I read that we are to hear a ‘quartet of international soloists;’ is it necessary to ship singers in from all over the place for so short a moment of glory, especially since, in the case of the sopranos, it’s really a bit of a scream – on part? Not that either Melanie Diener or Paula Rasmussen did exactly that, but they were rushed through their already – minor parts, as indeed were the men. It’s rather touching to see a veteran like Eike Wilm Schulte described as a ‘Debut Artist,’ but he clearly knows ‘O Freunde’ very well indeed; his singing was confident but lacked that final element of power in reserve, and despite being able to give words such as ‘feuertrunken’ their proper weight the overall impression of his performance was rather perfunctory. The American tenor Robert Gambill was another ‘debutant,’ with a very winning stage presence and excellent diction, but this really is a part which needs a heavier voice; the line is ‘wie ein held zum Siegen,’ not ‘wie ein Lyrisch - tenor zu singen’ and his voice was lost in the chorus at that part, although he was a stalwart in the ensembles.

The BBC Symphony Chorus sang lustily, but the performance as a whole lacked what Beethoven’s 9th should always have; a sense of real drama, a feeling of momentous, passionate endeavour and perhaps even a certain element of risk-taking, all of which were conspicuously absent last night.

 

Melanie Eskenazi


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