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Shostakovich & Mahler Symphonies: RNO/Pletnev and LPO/Harding, RFH 29th and 31st March 2004 (AR)

Shostakovich, Eleventh Symphony, Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev (conductor) RFH, 29th March 2004

Mahler, Tenth Symphony, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Harding (conductor) RFH, 31st March 2004

Hearing these Shostakovich and Mahler symphonies performed so close together at the Royal Festival Hall made me realise how strikingly similar they are in their depiction of angst, apprehension, terror, final resignation and death.

Mikhail Pletnev, conducting the Russian National Orchestra which he founded in 1990, interpreted Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony ‘The Year 1905’ afresh, stripping it bare of its narrative programme.

Whilst I consider this his greatest symphony I seem to be in a minority; a recent reviewer described it has having "not much symphonic depth…a pity about the piece."

Pletnev’s conducting can often sound wilful and mannered but here he was in his element, having a total grasp of the tempi and dynamics of this lengthy score. His reading throughout was broad but never felt slow. On CD Rostropovich/Washington National Symphony Orchestra lasts 69 minutes but lacks a sense of concentration and depth and so seems shorter than Pletnev, who takes just over 60 minutes; conversely, Ashkenazy/St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra on CD takes a mere 55 minutes but has a great sense of breadth. Of course, comparing ‘clock-time’ of performances is wholly deceptive since ‘music-time’ operates on a different level of sensation; suffice it to say that Pletnev’s reading was both broad and tight-reigned but never sounded laboured or protracted.

He paced the lengthy first movement Adagio perfectly, getting his strings to play with an authentic pianissimo and great concentration, producing a cold hard edge as if played from a distance, whilst the quiet timpani taps were a premonition of the tragedy to come. Pletnev conjured up a sense of a vast desolate space.

The second movement was incredibly gripping and nerve wracking with the timpani, side and bass drums having a field day: the sound can best be described as experiencing the primordial shudder. Pletnev conjured up a sense of starkness in the opening of the second Adagio with the pizzicato passages having great depth, being broadly paced and allowing in between ‘silences’ to be heard.

The conductor brought great urgency to the closing Allegro non troppo yet it never seemed rushed, as is often the case. The climax eight minutes into the movement was overwhelmingly intense, abruptly switching into soft strings accompanied by a poignantly played cor anglais solo. The closing bars were intense without being bombastic, with the chiming bells blending in, but not submerged by, the rest of the percussion.

Forty-eight hours later I heard Daniel Harding’s mesmerising performance of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (realised by Deryck Cooke) and was struck by its affinity with the Shostakovich Eleventh in the violence of its extreme moods and emotions.

His well-rehearsed performance glowed from beginning to end clearly demonstrating his close affinity with the composer and instinctive grasp of this hybrid score. Of all our UK orchestras the LPO produces the most authentic ‘Mahler sound’ – as well as being our foremost interpreters of the Shostakovich symphonies.

The first movement, fully scored by Mahler, opened with sedate strings setting a melancholic mood. Harding perfectly judged the increasingly nervous, unfolding pulse without lingering. The central climax however was surprisingly rather underpowered, despite the well-projected, piercing (and long held) trumpet note: the rest of the brass were too restrained here.

The Scherzo was performed with rhythmic panache with the horns especially playing with a visceral virtuosity whilst in the Purgatorio the woodwind had a perfectly raucous and aggressive bite. Harding brought out a sinister manic intensity in the Scherzo Allegro pesante, Nicht zu schnell, securing jagged rhythms and chamber-like textures, with the woodwind sounding especially spooky.

The death-knell hammer-blows in the Finale lacked dramatic intensity, failing to find the dry, hard sound that Mahler stated he required. The blows were followed by groaning sounds from bass tuba and horns giving way to suave reserve and melting resignation in the form of a sublimely phrased flute solo. As the movement progressed, the strings took on a serene sound, becoming darker, grainier than before, especially the ‘cellos and double basses which had an incredibly profound darkness of tone. The closing string passages were filled with resigned pathos, the sounds slowly dwindling into nothingness. The conductor held his baton in the air to hold the applause at bay as if observing one minute’s silence for Mahler’s memory.

All in all this was a deeply moving and memorable performance. Harding is as fine a conductor of Mahler as Pletnev is of Shostakovich.

Alex Russell

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