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S & H Concert Review

Schubert, Shostakovich Sergei Leiferkus (baritone); London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Kurt Masur. RFH, Wednesday January 29th, 2003 (CC).



When Kurt Masur conducted Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in June 2000 at the Barbican, it was an impressive occasion (see my review). Expectations for his ‘Babi yar’ with the LPC and LPO were therefore running high, especially given the presence of high-profile baritone Sergei Leiferkus.

Ultimately, if the performance failed to be the shattering experience that this set of Yevtushenko settings can be, it was because Masur chose to appear at a remove from the emotive heart of the score for a good part of the performance. Some of the rawness and sheer daring of the orchestration was lost because of a smoothing around the edges which, despite a multitude of audible details, detracted from Shostakovich’s mammoth achievement. (It is interesting to note that the symphony is close in date to the composer’s edition/orchestration of Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina, recently reviewed in Seen & Heard, and some of Musorgsky’s gritty world certainly seems to seep into the Thirteenth.) The fast speed Masur adopted for the ‘Babi Yar’ first movement (Babi Yar is the site of a mass murder of Jews by Germans in 1943) meant that the bass tread was ominous, but not frighteningly so. Leiferkus’ diction was superb. His sound was dark, but there was a wobble which detracted from clarity of line: his most impressive moment in this movement was the reference to Anne Frank (‘as tender as a shoot in April’), at which point he pared his voice down to a more vulnerable tone. There seemed to be an overall impression of warming into this performance from all sides, as the movement improved as it went on: the orchestral interlude was shattering, and the final line (‘And that is why I am a true Russian!’) emerged as appropriately rousing.

It was reassuring, then, to hear Masur making the most of Shostakovich’s outrageous orchestration in the second movement, ‘Humour’. More of this approach would have been welcome. This section worked well, however, mainly because Masur saw it as a seamless dramatic crescendo, one which afforded effective contrast to the bleak ‘cello and double bass opening of the following ‘In the Store’. Here, however, individual moments stood out (beautifully floated phrases from the soloist as he described the women freezing in queues, waiting quietly as they grasp in their hands their hard-earned money; orchestral chords, fortissimo and exactly together later on) without being subsumed into a whole.

It was hardly a surprise to hear the Mahlerian fanfares of the next movement, ‘Fears’, with their point of reference so clearly alluded to. Masur also seems able to conjure up stasis in a gripping way (the stillness of the opening was breathtaking). The emotive tuba solos were excellently delivered. It was the final movement, ‘A Career’, however, which acted as the true climax to this performance. Leiferkus projected the difficult vocal line well, even adding a touch of humour by looking at the chorus at the confirmation of the Tolstoy the text refers to being, indeed, Leo Tolstoy (as opposed to Alexei Tolstoy ,a novelist from the Stalin period). The final statements words (‘I believe in their sacred belief …’) carried a conviction which lingered hauntingly in the memory.

The gentlemen of the London Philharmonic Chorus had obviously been diligently prepared, their words clean and clear. And yet they sounded distinctly Surrey rather than Siberia, more Morden than Moscow. The Thirteenth is a vast emotional proposition. If only Masur had let go of the reins a little more, the effect could so easily have been all the greater.

The Schubert ‘Unfinished’ that was heard before the interval was much more than a token gesture. Masur had obviously lavished a good deal of rehearsal time here, as textures were transparent and balance always revealing. The opening was dark and brooding, achieved by highlighting the double basses more than is often the case. ‘Cellos were supremely eloquent for the second subject, and horns and bassoons matched each other perfectly in their immediately-preceding chordal transition (when this reappeared in the recapitulation, with horns and bassoon’s registrally reversed, similar care was in evidence). In keeping with the sinister opening, the development began in dramatic fashion: Masur’s harmonic sensitivity was never once in doubt.

The second movement was flowing, but perhaps too much so. Liquid clarinet solos and seamless octave horn slurs were highlights: the peacefulness of the end seemed the inevitable outcome. In some ways, indeed, the Schubert was the true highlight of the evening.

Colin Clarke


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