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S & H Concert Review

Wagner, Beethoven, Shostakovich Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Ingo Metzmacher. RFH, Sunday, February 23rd, 2003 (CC)


Performances of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony (1935/6) are few and far between, so it was something of a privilege to be present for this one. It is, in retrospect, hardly a surprise that the composer chose to withdraw the score and that the symphony had to wait until December 1961 for its premiere. Here is Shostakovich at his most daring, utilising a huge orchestra (over 100 players) and working within a unique structure: two half-hour movements enclosing a short Moderato con moto. The harmonic language is also uncompromising, the dynamic range extreme (under Metzmacher's baton actually physically painful in fortissimi for those members of the audience with intact hearing) and there is plenty to disturb the squeamish in amongst the obsessive repetitions and grotesqueries.

Right from the arresting opening, and with the cheeky, characteristic woodwind solos, the rawness of Shostakovich's vision was highlighted. The difficult fragmentary passages gripped the attention, a testament to the orchestra's powers of concentration. Contrasts were ruthlessly highlighted throughout, with the motoric fugue a particular highlight. The spiky second movement (which, despite its brevity, is much more than an interlude) set off the bleak, harrowing funeral march of the third movement. The violins brought a heart-stopping non-espressivo quality to the long melodic lines. A special mention should also perhaps go to the solo trombone, true to the spirit of the music in his blatant rudeness.

Metzmacher elected, correctly, to lay the score bare for the listener. There was no glossing over of textures here, more a frequently harrowing journey across a forbidding, sometimes barren landscape. A mesmerising experience.

The first half was rather more mixed. ‘Meistersinger Overture’ began in stolid fashion, far removed from its own inherent grandeur. The piece did actually pick up some momentum, however, despite some gratuitous over-indulgence along the way.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard is famously associated with the music of the twentieth century; his account on disc of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards is, in particular, a remarkable achievement. He has, however, just recorded the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Harnoncourt (live performances from the Stefaniensaal, Graz) and it was instructive to hear him in the well-loved Third. The orchestra was perhaps too sluggish in the orchestral exposition: Aimard's proclamatory entrance immediately put them into the shade, and they continued to sound literal in comparison. Maybe there was a little bit too much point-making from Aimard on occasion, but all criticism was effectively silenced by his account of the cadenza. Gripping and exciting, Aimard seemed convinced that this was top-flight Beethoven (certainly not always the impression given by this cadenza).

Aimard's pedal technique was questionable in the intense opening statement of the Largo: a shame, as it was as rapt as could be in essence. Balance was carefully prepared: how nice to hear the bassoon solos! A fast and glittering Rondo brought this insightful performance to a close.

Colin Clarke



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