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Beethoven & Shostakovich: Stephen Hough (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Yakov Kreizberg (conductor), Barbican Centre, 15.06.2006 (AR)


The odd and arbitrary coupling of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto with Shostakovich‘s Eleventh Symphony is simply bad programming. This was further contrasted by the first half being an absolute disaster whilst the second half was an artistic triumph.

This was by far the worst performance I have ever heard of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 ‘Emperor’. I cannot imagine there having been any serious rehearsal time given to this performance where there was no co-ordination between soloist, conductor and orchestra, and the piano sounded very badly tuned. The London Symphony Orchestra hardly ever looked at their flamboyant and elegant conductor Yakov Kreizberg and were in bad form generally with the strings sounding very rough whilst the brass were coarse and the woodwind far too recessed and nondescript. The ‘thumpy’ timpani produced a rather woolly sound and in the first movement the timpanist seemed to add his own emendations. Whilst there were nine double basses they were barely audible - as were the celli - despite the conductor’s pleading gestures towards them.

From the opening E flat, Kreizberg and Hough did not seem to negotiate a 'tempo primo'. Kreizberg was unsteady in the main exposition (non troppo). He arbitarily added a timpani cadence at the end of the first theme, and inserted a timpani crescendo just before the soloist’s entry. Here Hough produced a clangourous, strident tone and did not sustain a middle range, as all was top heavy, producing a ‘clunky’ sound.

Hough missed many notes and invented a few of his own whilst often being out of sync with conductor and orchestra. He had no sense of a steady, unfolding dramatic line or musical coherence; all was so anarchic and ‘in your face.’ His exaggerated dynamics produced a muffled effect, often smudging the notes. Overall both conductor and soloist failed to transmit a coherent line throughout the first movement. Kreizberg's conducting gave undue emphasis to the downbeat (accent) and failed to deliver a sustained build-up to the fanfare central climax, where the important echo-effects in bassoons and clarinets simply did not register. Throughout all the important woodwind and brass detail was either smudged or inaudible.

The slow movement was played far too loudly and all on one level with no contrasts in tone, sound or colour, all being on the top register with no middle or lower tone coming through, robbing the music of its contrasts.

By the time of the finale Rondo allegro, Hough was obviously in serious difficulty, playing a whole range of wrong notes, wrong pedalling, and continuing to be out of sync with conductor and orchestra, and arbitrarily ad-libbing. Again his phrasing was messy and the sound was congested, producing a coarse and hard-edged, distorted tone. Kreizberg did not help matters in failing to sustain any sense of basic tempo structure for the Rondo. The all- important concluding timpani cadenza was rather dully delivered with soft sticks and made absolutely no effect.

It may be argued that Hough’s hard edged, brittle and strident sound may have been due in part to the piano being out of tune: I simply cannot understand why the piano was not tuned and tested in rehearsals.

An uncritical Barbican audience were suckers for Hough’s histrionic manner of playing and applauded him with equally theatrical fervour.

Things improved dramatically with a well rehearsed and well played performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 11 'The Year 1905' – arguably the composer’s greatest symphony.

The distilled and brooding opening of the Palace Square: Adagio was well sustained with perfectly measured rock steady tempi, with the LSO violins playing with great sensitivity in setting the scene - even though they could not quite sustain the pp misterioso and could have been a bit more icy - as this is chilling music, depicting the snow-covered square in front of the Winter Palace. The stark, stabbing harps and distant trumpet calls had an eerie atmosphere, as did the sinister sounding timpani tapping out the menacing motto theme.

The percussion had a field day in 9 January: Allegro playing with great verve in the shattering climax depicting the moment when the troops attack the demonstrators. The bass drum and timpani (hard sticks) were particularly intense and unrelenting in their savagery. Kreizberg perfectly secured the taut and brute military march rhythms making this the most violent music ever written. After this violent out burst the noise is suddenly violently cut off into a distant sound haze of quite strings creating a breath-taking, nerve-wracking experience by being catapulted from one extreme mood to another.

In Memoriam: Adagio – the lament for the victims of the massacre - was well prepared and perfectly paced with carefully co-ordinated pizzicato grounding in celli and double-basses. The haunting theme itself was very well sustained in the violas.

The concluding build-up 'Greeting to Thee, unfettered Freedom.' (Allegro non troppo) was again well sustained, although some of the contrapuntal writing in brass and strings was not always incisive, or clear enough. Towards the end the slow passage was deeply moving with an appropriately alien sounding cor anglais.

I have not heard the opening of Tocsin: Allegro non troppo executed with such attack from the punctuating brass and stabbing cellos and double-basses: here the strings had the appropriate grainy tough ruggedness so rarely heard and Kreizberg wisely maintained a good Allegro non troppo.

The mournful cor anglais theme and final descending
figurations in contra bassoons and bass clarinets were well projected producing sinister sounds. The clanging bells and percussion were well balanced in the concluding passages with the work coming to a shattering conclusion. This was an intensely moving performance, expressively played and greeted with appreciative applause.


Alex Russell


Further listening


Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 ‘Emperor’; Piano Concertos 3 & 4; Claudio Arrau, (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer (conductor): Testament: 1351.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor Op. 103, The Year 1905, London Symphony Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich (conductor): Recorded live March 2002, Barbican, London.
LSO LIVE LSO0030.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor Op. 103, The Year 1905, St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor). Decca: 448 179-2.


 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)