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Esa-Pekka Salonen & Shostakovich: Anu Komsi (Soprano), Pia Komsi (Soprano), BBC symphony Orchestra, Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Barbican Hall, London, 12.05.2006 (GD)

Esa-Pekka Salonen's ' Wing on Wing' was written for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and its Architect Frank O. Gehry, where it was first performed in 2004. This was the UK premiere, (although Salonen has already recorded the work for DG with Finnish forces).

Frank O. Gehry is generally considered to be a 'post-modern' architect, and, like Xenakis, has found analogies between architectural and musical discourses and configurations. Salonen incorporates (or decorporates) Gehry's pre-recorded voice-over at randomly selected moments in the score. We hear fragments of Gehry's 'voiced' thoughts on aesthetics, architecture and post-modernism, among other things. As Salonen informs us in the programme note the piece also invokes allusions to various sea-scapes and a species of fish which sing in E natural. The two coloratura sopranos Salonen uses are initially dispersed antiphonally at each end of the orchestra’s stage spectrum; they later appear at each end of the first balcony in the hall. The Komsi sisters (who sang in the first performance) oscillate between sung words and soprano sounds which blend in and out of the orchestra. Although Salonen does not mention it the two sopranos various ghostly wailings and intonations are surely related to those distant 'sirens' in the 10th book of Homer's Odyssey whose seductive songs from the sea sing of the Trojan War, death and seduction.

Despite the works 'post-modern' credentials it is not a particularly radical work in musical terms. Salonen has obviously used the influences of Sibelius, Rautavaara and French influences from Debussy, Messiaen and even Ravel. Having said this the piece has a kind of voice of its own, and it is superbly orchestrated and structured. I have not seen the score, but it clearly incorporates elements of tonal inversion, ostinato-like sequences with complex cross-rhythms and alternating chorale patterns in the strings, woodwinds and brass. Saraste conducted the piece with obvious empathy and knowledge of his fellow Finn's musical idiom. The BBC SO orchestra responded with total commitment and involvement.

Shostakovich's Eighth symphony (written in Moscow, and the Moscow district, in the summer months of 1943) was neglected for a long period in the East and the West, after its first performance in November 1943 under Yevgeni Mravinsky, to whom the work is dedicated. I have heard much heralded performances recently from the likes of the Latvian (but Russian trained) Mariss Jansons, and the Russian, Gergiev. They were both disappointing in terms of adherence to Shostakovich's meticulous instructions to the conductor. This was more surprising in Janson's case as he studied in St Petersberg with Mravinsky, and probably went over the score with the great conductor.

So how did the Finn Saraste respond to Shostakovich's awe-inspiring challenge? Initially Saraste plunged audience and orchestra into the opening commanding 7-note idea, ff on celli and basses, an idea that, in a range of tonal registers, some distant, pervades the works massive entirety. This initial C minor opening affirmation soon subsides into a complex range of tonal vicissitudes, emanating from C minor, which wander through long paragraphs which involve alternating sections of the whole orchestra at various sustained p, pp markings, initially in 5/4. All this incredible range of sustained pp is subtended by a tense and ominous bass recitative which intone and transmogrify the opening C minor chords. Saraste simply did not contour these recitatives in the way Shostakovich asks for. Yes, the orchestra played them, but go to any of Mravinsky's recordings, or those by Rozhdestvenky, Kondrashin, Barshai, and Kitajenko to hear how vital to the work a correct articulation of the underlying range of recitatives can sound…they frame and organize the whole work… really a question of getting the works pulse.

Then, in the huge development section, still dominated by C minor and C sharp minor (with shades of A and D minor) Shostakovich introduces a grotesque and brutal march-like figure (literally a brutalized version of the main C minor tonic) between trumpets and trombones, played in canon. Here Shostakovich underlines the main Allegro non troppo marking of the movement. Why do conductors, including tonight’s conductor, ignore this and do the absolute opposite of what the composer requests and turn on an accelerando thus missing the sinister impact of the grotesque march? To avoid an awkward slowing down (allargando) Saraste kept up the over-fast tempo thereby robbing the cataclysmic climax, (now inflected with C major on full orchestra with a massive onslaught from the battery of percussion) of its devastating and grim power. This shattering climax subsides around a complex web of new variations on previous motif's, then into a plaintive melody on pp tremolando strings (again the recitative pulse underemphasized) from which develops the long cor anglais cadenza (now underscored with a varying, uneven pulse.) If the score is read carefully it will be realized that this extended cadenza incorporates virtually all the preceding themes in metamorphosized form; at many moments here the actual tonality is undecided between major/minor. No wonder the programme notes refer to Shostakovich as the composer of 'uncertainty'. And this in a work usually seen in terms of affirmative negation! The BBC SO's cor anglais player executed the cadenza almost fautlessly in terms of literal execution, but again I missed that ethereal, (haunting) quality one hears with Mravinsky and Rozhdestvensky.

Shostakovich described the second movement Allegretto as a ‘simple, rather burlesque, march movement alternating on a motto in D flat and C flat.' Here Saraste maintained the Allegretto throughout the movement as the composer requests. This was all fine, with particularly deft playing from the orchestra's piccolo at the refrain towards the movements final. I thought the powerful ff abrupt timpani cadence at the end of the movement a little under- played.

The third movement, a toccata-ostinato, initially in E minor, is marked Allegro non troppo. It is simply beyond my powers of comprehension how a conductor, who has just obeyed the composer’s Allegretto marking (second movement) can then totally disobey the same composer’s Allegro non troppo marking. But that is exactly what Saraste did. The piece was taken too fast, more like an Allegro assai, to fully realize the composer’s frequent 'marcatissimo' and 'sforzandi' markings. The ff interjections on brass and percussion with overlapping, percussive sforzandi on celli and basses went for virtually nothing here. The martial trio section with trumpet fanfares and implacable side drum rhythms failed to make their contrasting effect. The build-up to the devastating, self-destructive climax, hurling the movement into the unison of a subsiding Passacaglia theme, was again underpowered at this tempo, and the wonderful contrast from Passacaglia in G sharp minor, to the C major which initiates the finale was similarly missed.

There has been all manner of rhetoric relating this symphony to a specific political programme: it is variously seen as 'anti-Stalin', or 'anti-Hitler'. Although Shostakovich was certainly aware of the context in which he was writing the work, the same year that the German Wehrmacht had besieged his native Leningrad and Hitler's 6th Army was attempting (unsuccessfully) to annihilate Stalingrad. All this cannot be minimized as affecting the mood of the work. But it can be argued that the symphony exceeds any particular context, or programme. Perhaps it is better to see the work as a commentary on any human conflict or course of destruction. It is also, and foremost, a musical commentary. The huge Passacaglia was undoubtedly influenced by J.S. Bach, a composer Shostakovich frequently studied, even if it is an extremely desolate, and gaunt commentary. It is also possible that this excess of programme rhetoric (more apt in the Eleventh and Twelfth Symphonies) accounts for the agogic distortions some conductors impose on the music.

The unheroic, rather desolate coda, with a freely developing waltz rondo on bassoon (neither grave nor gay) was under-characterized, although well played. The C-D-C motto of the symphony which reverberates under a haunting descending phrase from the previous waltz theme, now in C sharp minor, one of the most poignant endings Shostakovich ever wrote, gives way to silence. A silence Saraste held for a few minutes before reticent applause ensued. The BBC SO played excellently throughout this massive score. However, one can only imagine what heights they would have achieved with a conductor who was more in tune with the score.


Geoff Diggines


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