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S & H Concert Review

Mozart & Shostakovich, Julian Bliss (Clarinet), Sergei Alexashkin (Bass); BBC SO Orchestra & Chorus, Jirí Belohlávek (conductor) RFH; 17th April, 2004, [AR]

 

While the combination of Mozart and Shostakovich seemed a rather arbitrary coupling the contrasting scores were unified by the superlative performances of both works.

I have never heard Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto played with such subtlety and aplomb. Julian Bliss proved himself to be an artist of international stature; he is no mere wunderkind showing off a precocious, dazzling technique – despite his youth he is a consummate musician of astonishing maturity.

His consciously discreet and thoughtful interpretation was deliberately understated: Bliss interpreted this late melancholic score in a restrained and mature manner rather than treating it as a virtuoso showpiece. His subdued and mellow playing had a sense of vulnerability, which emphasised the music’s fragile pathos. In the Allegro Bliss played with effortless grace, producing sounds of great delicacy and refinement, whilst in the Adagio the notes seemed to hang in the air, creating a sensation of sublime tranquilly. For the Rondo Allegro Bliss produced elegant, graceful phrasing, playing with wit and sheer charm. Jirí Belohlávek got sensitive support from the BBC SO, reining them back to complement Bliss’ subtle reserve, resulting in a perfect balance between orchestra and soloist. This was pure bliss indeed.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No.13 ‘Babi Yar’ was given an intense performance by Belohlávek, whose taut and direct conducting brought out the score’s rugged angularity and intrinsic violence. Ostensibly based on the five Yevtushenko poems commemorating the massacre of the Jews at Kiev, this work represents the composer’s most overt criticism of the brutalities of the Soviet communist regime. Belohlávek’s urgently paced conducting unified the poems, treating the symphony more like a single tonepoem.

Throughout Alexashkin had a commanding presence, projecting his magnificent sombre bass voice with authority and passion, ranging from sonorous to the most delicate sotto voce. The small, all male BBC Chorus had a convincing Russian accent and sung with great force, but never drowning out the orchestra or soloist, as is sometimes the case with massed choirs at this venue.

At the beginning of Babi-Yar Belohlávek urged the brass and percussion to play with an incisive brutishness, culminating in the violence of the shattering climax after the reference to Anne Frank. Humour was conducted faster than we usually hear it with the conductor conjuring up a sense of viciousness from the rasping brass and sardonic percussion, with the shrieking woodwind verging on hysteria.

The ‘cellos and double-basses produced deeply expressive playing in the opening of In the Store while the castanets and wood-block (immitating the banging of cans in a shop) had an eerie threatening effect. The most dramatic moment was the eight punctuating percussive chords, which had a manic intensity, evoking a sensation of sheer terror. Fears opened with a reverberating gong, rumbling bass drum and a forwardly projected moaning tuba solo which had an ominous and macabre effect casting a black pall of sound over the hall: this was the most haunting music of the evening. Performances today tend to tone down the solo tuba but here it took on an ominous resonance.

A Career began with humorously pointed woodwind playing, followed by a delicate intermezzo played on pizzicato strings as if coming from a dream only to be awoken by threatening trombone glissandi, ending with an energetic fugue. This was followed by the most haunting and poignant section of the symphony: the waltz of the string quartet. The conductor created a sense of eerie distance from the subdued celeste and bell casting a meditative spell over a mesmerised audience.

Alex Russell

Further Listening

Shostakovich, Symphony No.13 ‘Babi Yar’ , West German Radio (WDR) Symphony Orchestra, Rudolf Barshai, Brilliant Classics 6275-1/11

 


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