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Seen and Heard Prom Review
PROM 51: Ravel and Shostakovich, Hélène Grimaud, piano, London Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink, conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 22 August, 2005 (ED)
The 1918 orchestration of Alborada del gracioso has long had its own concert life away from its piano based partners in Miroirs. Ravel’s orchestration of the comparatively simple piano source might seem at first more than is required, but in it he reflects something of the troubled time of war that he has just lived through. La valse, one feels, is never far away. Haitink and the LSO reinforced this with playing that went from crisp pizzicato in the strings and mournful brass to the orchestra deliciously in full flow. The image brought to mind was of a world-weary yet agitated bullfighter muttering sarcastically to the bull stampeding towards him. Haitink just steered the bull clear, bringing things to a resounding conclusion.
The piano concerto, which Grimaud has twice recorded, was not initially what one might have expected. From the whipcrack start she seemed strangely ill at ease with the jazzier side of the work being a touch sloppy with note values, whilst she was more at home in the contemplative moments. Haitink too sensed something missing, as orchestrally the movement never really jelled as it might have done.
With the long delicately breathed solo piano introduction to the Adagio assai, things settled and playing of a higher order was delivered. Grimaud floated the line sensitively, observing dynamics with care, leading to orchestral accompaniment of altogether greater presence and fluency. There were finely voiced flute and lingering clarinet solos that gave just an edge of the melancholic to proceedings. The presto finale kicked off at a fine tempo and raced home with aplomb, showing just what could have been made of the first movement if only things had been different. But that’s live music making; no second takes…
Coming as it does after the comparatively better known Seventh symphony, Shostakovich’s Eighth reveals itself the work of a composer in full flood, being his longest symphony and written in just forty days.
But I found I faced real problems: not with the performance as much as the music itself, and it’s something I feel whenever encountering the work. It was not just that the brooding hulk is at once distasteful and somehow attractive to me. It was more a question of can a work be ‘great’ (many argue it is the finest of Shostakovich’s symphonic output) and thoroughly absorbing in performance (which this undoubtedly was) if five minutes later one cannot recall a single note of the experience?
My notes are copious concerning details of playing and phrasing: the glassy quality of the muted violins following the pitch darkness of celli and basses at the opening, the force of attack was brutal (almost too so?) in the linked allegro; which in turn lead to a sour allegretto.
At the time, the orchestration of the middle movement Allegro non troppo struck me, such was the mordancy of the playing: combining strings, timpani and brass over pizzicato bassi. The largo was magnificently executed bringing out nocturnal qualities in the flute solo, and later three deliciously discordant flutes hanging over strings laid bare a fragile and mournful texture.
The allegretto finale was a jaunty squeezebox that started, as was intended, almost ill at ease with itself – the darkness of the lower strings set against woodwinds (bassoons excellent here particularly); solo violin and cello made telling contributions before unstoppably glorious and voluminous brass lead all to a terrible repeated climax. The concluding passage, far from mere afterthought, was more a sarcastic contemplation on all that had gone before, reaching finally some measure of rest in a tranquil meditation.
Haitink paced the work superbly with a keen sense of internal dynamic and contrast. As ever, he dealt with matters straight on, pulling no punches. The five movement structure, itself problematic as it gives the work outsize dimensions, was not smoothed over. For Haitink the middle allegro non troppo belonged more to the last two movements than the first two, and in this view I could hear his reasoning. But it still sat with difficulty amongst the whole.
In the end the work remains for me something elusive, deliberately defying easy categorisation. For the fact it time and time again leaves me provoked to ask more things of and about it, I call the work great. And Haitink’s performance only increased the power and urgency of those questions: that is one function at least of great art in action.
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