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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Shostakovich and Rachmaninov: Galina Gorchakova (soprano), Ilya Levinsky (tenor), Pavel Baransky (baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, (conductor), Barbican Centre, London, 21 May, 2005 (AO)

Shostakovich described his 15th and final symphony to a friend as “a requiem for myself”, and its quotations from other music explicitly refer to youth, life and death. Rachmaninov’s The Bells, his personal favourite, illustrates the same themes, using texts. Futhermore, both pieces use the symbolism of bells. But there is much more in this music, and this performance by Saraste and the BBC SO provided much fresher, challenging insights. Indeed, it raised thoughts about the nature of the creative process itself.


If anything, there are more “bells” in the Shostakovich than in the Rachmaninov, who wrote when church bells regulated the pace of life in orthodox Russia. Shostakovich uses a variety of bell sounds to evoke different emotional images. From the first bars in the first movement, simple, clear bell sounds evoke the purity of childhood. This imagery is reinforced when xylophone, flutes, drums and trumpets are played whimsically, as if they were “toy” instruments. Yet bells are also sounds of alarm. Shostakovich creates a “battle of toys”, a dramatic but playful clash of drums, trumpets and strings. The quotes from the William Tell Overture are so persistent that Shostakovich is clearly indicating that it means something to him. Is it the idea of a simple man standing up to the forces of tyranny? That the innocence of youth is a parody of adult battles? For many of us, the music is indelibly imprinted with childhood memories of the Lone Ranger. Shostakovich certainly would not have picked up on this, yet, strangely, the idea of an altruistic loner does reinforce the William Tell imagery, and, by extension, the image Shostakovich might have had of himself. Shostakovich further develops the sinister undertones gathering as the music progresses. The violin solo, played with an almost maniacal dissonance by the guest leader, Jason Horowitz, is reinforced by almost equally alarming solos from flute and violincello. Saraste gives them greater prominence against the background of the orchestral than is evident is some recordings. The clarity he brings to Sibelius, and to modern music, works well with Shostakovich.


The clear bell sounds soon become something more equivocal. The glockenspiel repeats the bells, but in a more hollow, “dead” tones, picked up by the plucking of bass strings, the persistent low drumming. It is as if the tolling of bells reflects a human heartbeat, steady, insistent but mortal. The famous quotes from Wagner make it clear that Shostakovich was thinking about life and its inevitable end. David Nice, in his pre concert talk added more evidence. He said that the composer also used other quotes, such as one from an obscure aria in Glinka, where the words specifically refer to facing imminent death. Composers as musically literate and Shostakovich knew very well that, by the use of allusion, they can evoke responses in listeners that amplify the notes they use: a listener, making connections, learns from the music what it meant to the composer, to the performers, to him or herself. Some might hear in the “battle” music Shostakovich’s political position, others not. Others might hear in the quotes from Prokofiev and his own work how Shostakovich felt about his place in music. The imagery is meant to spark off creative appreciation from performer and listener. Even the doomed duck in Peter and the Wolf appears, who, despite being eaten, remains alive inside the wolf. It could or couldn’t be a metaphor. What a listener puts into music, he or she gets out of it.


Fertile ideas generate fertile responses. Edgar Allen Poe’s original poems were substantially changed in the Russian translation of The Bells but that didn’t matter. Rachmaninov got enough from the translation to create a new, original work that would be one of his favourites. Artists need creative licence. Saraste inspired from the orchestra gossamer like lyricism – completely different to the well- known Svetlanov recording. It was exquisite, so much so that the complete inaudibility of the tenor did not unduly distract. I have heard him in recordings where he is worthy rather than distinctive, so I was glad to concentrate on the beauty of the ensemble. Even if the choir had learned the text phonetically, they sang with animation. Often, with phonetic learning, there will be some raggedness in the singing because it’s difficult to get make all the unfamiliar sounds at the same time. Not so here. Apart from a slight waywardness in the lower male voices, which may be in the score, there was remarkable unison. The soprano appeared in a wonderful fuchsia coloured silk stole. She could be heard over the chorus, but her delivery was somewhat less silken. This “holy call to marriage” didn’t promise “bliss”. The baritone part, describing a grim funeral march, is ideally sung by one of those big bass baritones who can make the Russian words glow with dignity. Pavel Baransky doesn’t quite have the gravitas, yet, but he’s only 27 years old. He seemed to relish the dramatic interplay with chorus and orchestra. Someone behind me later remarked, “pity about the soloists”. He was right. However, when orchestra and chorus are performing this well, it is a pleasant change to enjoy the music from their perspective. Saraste’s deft conducting highlighted many details often lost in the heady mass that is this work. For example, I had not realised that some of the “bells” here were played on the piano! A small touch, perhaps, but a meaningful one. I could almost visualise Rachmaninov himself writing that in, smiling significantly.



Anne Ozorio



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