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S & H Concert Review

Mussorgsky & Shostakovich, Olga Borodina (mezzo), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich, RFH 27th April 2003 (MB)



This was a concert which veered between extremes – undeniable greatness in Olga Borodina’s performance of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death and mediocrity in Rostropovich’s lurid conducting of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. At times, this great Amsterdam orchestra seemed perplexed by it all – playing with great refinement and balance of tone during the Mussorgsky but with blemished ensemble and scant regard for the detail in the symphony. If it really was a mess no one seemed to care – the audience rose as one to give the Blessed Slava a prolonged standing ovation and he, in turn, placed a rose inside the score, kissed it and raised it to the audience amongst even more deafening cheers.

Extraordinary scenes, but how I wish the performance of the symphony had been worth the adulation it received. The playing was often stunning (as one would expect from this orchestra) but it was also prone to some acidic sound-bites, some less than secure intonation from the horns and some meagre-toned violin playing. It is tempting to argue that this was all down to Rostropovich’s tempi which flared between extremes. What should normally gather pace was subjected to wildly inappropriate ritardando, not least during the finale’s middle section which risked stasis. He kept that grindingly slow tempi throughout the rest of the movement (with the piercing upper harmonics on violins more tiresome than they need be); it sounded grim but it certainly didn’t convey that unsettled sense of tension the movement needs to give it it’s impact.

If the moderato had opened promisingly with brooding introspection it was a slow progression towards the savage development which Rostropovich suddenly whipped up into some kind of frenzied bacchanal. The Allegretto, surprisingly Mahlerian for this conductor, opened with phenomenally gritty ‘cellos and basses but it deteriorated into parody. The Largo certainly didn’t lack intensity, but what it did lack was a sense of elegy. Taken at a blistering pace at times this was a portrait in anguish and suffering – but it had nothing to do with Shostakovich. It blazed like an inferno, but the introspection was all but left tattered by Rostropovich’s promiscuous direction.

Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death can suffer in orchestration, though whether you prefer them sung by a bass or mezzo matters surprisingly little. Olga Borodina has one of the richest mezzo voices around and she brought heart-rending pathos and drama to these songs. The voice is secure throughout the register – and sublimely burnished at the bottom end – but the weight and precision she attaches to her phrasing is simply staggering. Even Christoff couldn’t match the incandescence she brought to the final song, ‘The Field Marshall’, which in its portrayal of battle and slaughter makes forbidding demands on the voice. Rostropovich’s sensitive conducting, using a reduced orchestra, scaled the heights of tragedy but allowed Borodina plenty of room to measure her dynamics so they were always audible.

It was unquestionably a great performance in a concert that fell far short of greatness.

Marc Bridle



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