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PROM 52 – Schnittke & Shostakovich:Elena Zhidkova (mezzo-soprano), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor) BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London 24.8.2009 (CR)

This was a wonderful programme of Russian masterworks, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev.

Schnittke’s war oratorio, Nagasaki, was composed in 1958 as his graduation piece from the Moscow Conservatoire. Although the musical language has hints of student naïveté (at least when heard side by side with Shostakovich’s magnificent 8th symphony), this is a fascinating work and it was a wonderful opportunity to hear it here in its UK premiere.

The dark opening uses a plodding bass line under a richly sonorous string melody. The choir is almost ritualistic in its unison chanting of the text, providing a dramatic first movement which is structurally and musically strong. Schnittke uses the full forces of large orchestra (quadruple winds) and chorus well, and there is a sense of dark foreboding. Had this music been written today, it would perhaps have been conceived to accompany a film score; the power in these forces and the way Schnittke uses them has the strength one expects from a master such as John Williams; the language is approachable but all-consuming and on a blockbuster scale.

The second movement contrasts well; entitled ‘the morning’ it gives a sense of the hustle and bustle of everyday life, with a light-hearted brass fanfare and the rhythmic energy of Bernstein and Stravinsky. The atonality of the third movement caused an outcry in Russia when it was first heard, and was undoubtedly shocking to listeners of the time, but for me, like the explosion at the climax of Adams’ Dr Atomic, it did not quite push far enough to the limits of emotion. Schnittke does, however, come across with sincerity of purpose, and the music has a strong message. There were some fine moments from the brass, with some wonderfully dissonant parallel harmonies, and the building of tension was well handled both structurally and with the use of available forces. Schnittke makes use of bright piccolos, high brass and weighty percussion in Shostakovich-style orchestration, and the orchestra provided a spectacular display of its wide dynamic range.

The fourth movement takes the form of an elegy for mezzo-soprano, using a contrast of forces and providing a contemplative atmosphere. Elena Zhidkova’s rich, dark voice made an impressive impact in this, her Proms debut, and the haunting sound of a theremin provided an unusual addition to the orchestral colour.

The finale, revised after its first public performance as a result of objections by the Union of Soviet Composers provides a struggle between optimism and sorrow, with reprisals of the opening movement’s material providing tension as it is heard in a new light. Perhaps the most exciting moment of the whole work was the final sustained crescendo, during which the LSO pushed itself to the limits and produced an exhilarating sound.

Overall, the work showed multiple influences in Schnittke’s compositional education; an obvious passion for Bach comes through in the opening movement, and the rhythmic writing brings to mind elements of Stravinsky’s music. The choral writing has resonances with Orff and there is also the inescapable influence of Shostakovich weaving its way through the music. This is an enjoyable work, and one any graduating student would be proud of.

The second half of the programme was formed of Shostakovich’s magnificent and brooding Eighth Symphony, composed in 1943. A masterpiece of twentieth century symphonic writing, this was a spellbinding performance by the LSO under Gergiev’s careful interpretation. One has the sense with Gergiev that he has a personal connection with this music, and one could feel a devotion to every note of Shostakovich’s score.

Particular mention should be made of Christine Pendrill’s exquisite rendition of the famous cor anglais solo; this solo is almost unbearably long, reaching, as Shostakovich does so well, the limits of emotional expression. Pendrill played with magical changes of timbre and dynamic, with the utmost of control and musicality. Sharon Williams’ piccolo playing was also memorable, sparkling in the solos and soaring above the orchestra in the loudest of tuttis. The LSO has a reputation for delivering world-class performances, and the individual efforts that combine to create such magic on the platform are all worthy of mention. This was not a perfect performance (although it came very close), but it was certainly a world-class one.

Shostakovich is a master of pacing, colour and tension, and all of these things were beautifully illuminated by Gergiev’s performance. The first movement’s opening, with its long melodic lines and harmonic shifts provided a stark contrast with Schnittke’s work; this was written fifteen years earlier but is harmonically more daring with grinding dissonances which give the music an extra dimension.

The familiar elements of Shostakovich’s music are all heard in this work; miliataristic percussion, screeching piccolos, loud brass, twisting melodic lines and rhythmic ostinati come together to create the composer’s unique voice. Also present is an element of emotional confusion, with hints that the happy music is ironic. This is particularly obvious here in the second movement, with an ambiguous tempo which was neither slow enough to be heavy and pompous, nor fast enough to be light and frivolous.

Gergiev’s magic was spoilt, for me, by two things. The first was a slightly restless audience, who had one or two collective bouts of dropping things, coughing and fidgeting during some of the quieter moments (particularly irritating in this respect was the man a few seats away who intermittently rustled the carrier bag he was holding). The second was a perhaps more serious concern, since it addresses the acoustics of the hall. I was sitting in section K of the stalls, almost directly opposite the orchestra. From this position, there was an audible echo, almost immediately after the initial sound, which seemed to go from one side of the orchestra to the other. The effect at times (particularly with staccato notes) was almost as hearing two notes instead of one, and in certain passages it actually sounded as if the orchestra was experiencing ensemble problems. These distractions apart, however, this was an excellent performance. If you missed it, I strongly recommend listening back on the BBC website.

Carla Rees

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