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Shostakovich, Violin Concerto No.2 & Symphony No.13 in B flat minor ‘Babi Yar’; Gidon Kremer (vln), Anatoli Kotscherga (bass), Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic Chorus, Vladimir Ashkenazy, 23 March, 2003, RFH. (AR)


Composed for David Oistrakh in 1967, Shostakovich stated that his Violin Concerto No.2 was composed: "slowly and with great difficulty, squeezing out one note after another." Betraying nothing of the difficult circumstances of the work’s creation, Gidon Kremer played this concerto with great ease and fluidity, realising every emotion, every nuance of this multi-layered work.

Kremer’s tone is not overtly beautiful or refined, rather rugged and acidic, and as such ideally suited to this sombre, late work. In the first movement – Moderato - Kremer produced a brittle, harsh and metallic sound, taking on an almost percussive quality. This was matched by the Philharmonia, whose sympathetic, chameleon-like playing, took on Kremer’s own colouring, notably with dark, brooding sounds from the ‘cellos and double-basses. With the Adagio, Kremer switched to a razor-sharp tone, sounding like a different instrument and musician altogether. In the finale – Adagio–Allegro – Kremer’s style changed yet again - a rough, course, almost Gypsy violin sound, his acrobatic playing being wonderfully punctuated by an incisive dialogue with the horns. Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia proved to be perfect partners for Kremer’s wild way of playing this chamber concerto (for there are no trumpets, trombones and tuba here).

Shostakovich’s Symphony No.13 ‘Babi Yar’ was given an emotionally charged performance from beginning to end by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Anatoli Kotscherga and the London Philharmonic Choir. Here Ashkenazy showed himself to be an instinctive Shostakovich conductor and he secured impassioned playing from the Philharmonia. Kotscherga has the prefect vocal instrument for this protest symphony: an expressive directness and clear projection that filled the RFH without ever sounding forced or loud: he sang each poem with a subtle change of emotional inflexion, colour and intensity. The all male LPO Choir sang convincingly in Russian, with great passion, accuracy and expression, integrating seamlessly with orchestra and soloist.

The symphony is based on the notorious Nazi massacre and burial of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar, a ravine to the north-west of the city of Kiev, on September 29 and 30, 1941. The immediate inspiration for the composer was the poem, ‘Babi Yar’, from a collection published by Yevgeni Yevtushenko in September 1961.

The first movement (Babi-Yar: Adagio) began with muted horns and trumpets, a chilling presage of the emotional experience to come. As this bleak and foreboding score progressed the conductor slowly built up the tension, conjuring up an awesome power from the orchestra and giving the climaxes shattering impact, further intensified by timpanist Andrew Smiths relentless pounding.

In Humour: Allegretto, the conductor made the alleged humour of this section verge on hysteria by conjuring up frenetic activity from percussion and screaming woodwind in a wild dance: a kind of Freudian realisation that laughing is the inverse of screaming. Throughout the third movement (In the Store: Adagio) the Philharmonia percussion, including castanets and woodblock, created the urgent banging of cans in a shop. The castanets constantly click as the all male chorus and soloist sing in protest. Ten minutes in the tension explodes with eight punctuating percussive chords: this was executed with incredible intensity, realising completely the brute force of struggle.

Fears: Adagio - a poem by Yevtushenko written especially for the symphony - opened with a rumbling bass drum perfectly measured by Peter Fry; while the sinister sound of the solo tuba was delivered by John Jenkins with a stark and eerie impact: I have never heard this opening section delivered with such a sense of threatening, brooding menace. The fifth movement (A Career: Allegretto) opened with some very expressive woodwind playing, leading to an intermezzo played delicately on pizzicato strings, followed by threatening trombone glissandi, ending with an energetic fugue, with notably pointed woodwind. This is followed by the most haunting and poignant section of the symphony: the waltz of the ghostly string quartet, ending with a sparkling sound from the celeste and bell: this was the most intense and intimate point of the symphony, where Shostakovich appears to find peace.

The Iraqi war lent this performance an even greater poignancy: Shostakovich’s violent score and the artistry of conductor, orchestra, chorus and Anatoli Kotscherga, unleashed an emotional frisson and violent intensity that both evoked and condemned war, and rightly produced a rapturous response from a full house.

Alex Russell




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