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Seen and Heard Concert Review




Schumann, Shostakovich, Brahms: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Valéry Gergiev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 14.9.06 (AO)


Gergiev has conducted so much Shostakovich this year that he probably needs to work with different orchestras to keep himself refreshed.  The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is so good that people would even come to hear them play Dambuster. Moreover, the concert also featured Brahms Fourth and greatest symphony, a piece associated closely with the orchestra since its premiere, attended by the composer himself.  This combination of conductor, orchestra and programme was a sure fire winner, and the concert was, predictably, sold out.

Whoever planned the programme to start with Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale knew what they were doing.  A programme like this needs an overture as curtain raiser, so to speak. This work, which never progressed beyond a group of orchestral pieces, isn’t particularly satisfying heard on its own, though there are some particularly lovely moments, such as when the massed strings murmur together. The orchestra demonstrated their mettle. An almost inaudible single note ends the second section: then suddenly, the whole orchestra ignites in free spirited, raucous drama.

The Vienna Philharmonic may not be a “Shostakovich” orchestra, whatever that may be, because an orchestra this accomplished can play almost anything given the right conductor and support.  If anything, the VPO’s background infused Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony with a wickedly warm, Mozartean glow.   The symphony was premiered soon after the Russian defeat of the Germans in 1945, so the Soviet authorities were expecting something patriotic.  What Shostakovich came up with is a lyrical, witty symphony where military marches are turned into merry dances.  A solo piccolo leaps free of the massed string textures, an individual going his own merry way against the monolith, in the form of massed strings.    The trombone and trumpet, and “pipes” and drums are often used to portray military music.  Shostakovich uses them instead, individually and in ensemble to subvert militarist posturing.  They are far too vivacious to march in formation.  It’s the strings who represent massed power, playing in perfect unison.  At times the writing is so intensely textured, they sound like a hive of maddened bees.  I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t Shostakovich’s intention. There weren’t any words of subversion in the symphony, but the Party didn’t approve.

When the Leader of the violins does his solo, he plays it with deliberate mockery, like a manic folk fiddler, as if he, too, was taking up the subversion represented by the piccolo.  Gergiev brought out the almost tango like interplay between strings and woodwinds.  In the passages where ascending patterns rise angularly, his expressive hands flutter, as if he were making the massed strings creep up a flight of steps – these effects adding to the inherent drama in the music.  Shostakovich was well aware of western cartoons, so perhaps this was a kind of musical Tom and Jerry. Indeed, the sense of cat versus mouse is reinforced by the sound of the piccolo leaping above the tense plucking of the violins, trying to be quiet as they “stalk” the piccolo who always gets away. 

        A tuba and trombone fanfare reasserts the “military” imagery, but with a huge element of parody.  It’s followed by mournful bassoon, but the composer doesn’t dwell on the grimness.  Instead the music makes another volte-face, and the bassoon whips itself into a merry dance.   This time, the first violins take up a more lyrical melody, while the second violins continue the tense staccato march.  Is the revolt spreading?  Where will it lead? The music grows louder, wilder and darker, as form seems to disintegrate into sub units. The sheer vivacity of the writing pushes the music forward.  This humour has a savage, manic edge – Mozart would, I think, have appreciated the way Shostakovich writes with such double meaning.

The soloists were superlative – the woodwinds especially, since the music favoured them.  Brahms Fourth Symphony embeds the solos into the overall texture.  The strings can display their lush Romantic tone.  The famous clarinet solo was gloriously limpid, supported by quiet pizzicato.  The final Allegro was fluidly energetic, affirming the themes that had gone before with confidence.  If I haven’t written much on Brahms, it’s not because it wasn’t excellent, but because this symphony is a monument in the orchestra’s repertoire and it would only be “news” if it wasn’t superbly played.


Anne Ozorio



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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)