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