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Shostakovich - Second Opinion: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/ Andris Nelsons (Conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham 29.4.2010 (CT)

Shostakovich - Symphony No. 4


We have become used to pre-concert talks in recent times; those often fairly rushed affairs where the few concert-goers who can actually manage to get there from work in time will slide into a back room of the concert hall, often to be greeted by a reticent or plainly unwilling composer trying to explain in non-technical terms what their new piece is all about. The idea is admirable in principle but it has to be said that they can all too often be depressingly uninspiring affairs.


It is to the CBSO’s credit therefore that the orchestra has taken the concept of the pre-concert talk and with a not insignificant degree of risk and the assistance of a renowned critic, writer and broadcaster in the form of Stephen Johnson, turned it into a full blown lecture/presentation on the music to be heard, in this case taking up the entire first half of the concert.


The risk factor comes in two forms. Does an audience seriously want to lose up to an hour’s worth of paid for music and will they express any desire to listen to a lengthy talk on a piece that many in the hall might know intimately anyway?


In the case of the loyal supporters of the CBSO at least, any doubts were laid aside swiftly as the audience clearly voted for the format in positive fashion with Symphony Hall pretty well full to the rafters for Stephen Johnson’s projected forty five minute presentation that actually turned out to be seventy minutes of thoughtfully prepared insight and eloquently delivered factual and historical information, liberally backed up by live musical examples from the CBSO under Michael Seal. Indeed it was wholly fortunate that Michael Seal was on hand for the first half to deputise for Andris Nelsons as the Latvian sped to Symphony Hall direct from Birmingham Airport following his late return from a date with the Vienna Staatsoper.


Striking a happy balance between those in the audience that were completely new to Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony and those that might have been less familiar could have been a precarious prospect indeed, but Johnson’s mix of historical context and scene painting of life in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the effect that the regime and its reign of terror had on Shostakovich’s music and mentality and perhaps most fascinatingly, first hand accounts of events such as the premiere of the Fifth Symphony obtained by Johnson from people he has met during his many visits to Russia, all made for a compelling introduction to the full performance of the Fourth Symphony to come.


With Andris Nelsons having happily arrived at the hall by fast car, that performance was marked by a very different CBSO to that which had given the musical examples of the first half, with the orchestra quite literally tearing through the opening bars of the first movement with astonishing ferocity and energy.


With Nelsons on the podium the spell that the young Latvian has over the orchestra was immediately striking, the rapt attention of the players palpable throughout as the almost maniacal cackling of the brass and the shrieking of the woodwind carried an intensity that was only topped by the fugue in the strings, played at a jaw dropping tempo that conveyed a terrifying sense of desperation, a telling sign of the composer’s state of mind at the time of the work’s composition.


With the tall, lean figure of the conductor at times arched backwards drawing a huge sound from his forces, at others leaning over the players like a demonic Praying Mantis, the colossal dynamic contrasts of the score, as well as the considerable subtlety of its orchestration were extracted with impressive detail, yet it was the sheer contrast of the quieter dynamics that were at times overwhelming in their emotional impact.


The deeply unsettling nature of the second movement and the monsters lurking beneath its surface were again brilliantly and vividly brought to life as one sensed that Nelsons was undergoing a very personal journey with the score, often marked by quick tempos yet never feeling under threat of losing its psychological impact as a result.


Tempos were again swift in the Petrouchka like fairground music of the third movement, whilst the presence of the ghost of Mahler was imbued with a sense of other worldliness by Nelsons and his players. The twisted triumph of the last huge climax before the return of Mahler’s ghost was as devastating as anything that had gone before but it was the chilling impression left by the closing bars as the last embers of life were snubbed out that left the most lingering impression, the audience sitting in satisfying silence as the last dying sounds ebbed away.

Utterly desolate, utterly heart rending and yet as Stephen Johnson so aptly pointed out also utterly magnificent, the closing bars of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony are as powerful a statement as anything in the Russian symphonic literature. Could this be the last word in musical ambiguity and paradox? On the evidence of this performance at least, there are few who would be likely to argue.


Christopher Thomas

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