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Shostakovich: Natasha Paremski (piano) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Grzegoraz Nowak (conductor) Cadogan Hall, 9.4.2010 (GD)

: Festive Overture, Op. 96

Piano Concerto No.2 in F major, Op, 102
Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op.47

This concert was to have been conducted by Shostakovich's son Maxim and as such it was billed as special event, not just because of the parental relationship, but also by the fact that Maxim is one of the composer's most convincing interpreters on the international concert stage. Sadly Maxim was unable to appear  due to illness, and  hospitalisation in Moscow and Polish conductor Grzegorz Nowak, now Principal Associate Conductor of the RPO, very kindly agreed to stand in for him at very short notice. Right from the Festive Overture's rousing opening  brass fanfares  Nowak's energetic conducting and attention, especially to dynamic detail, was abundantly evident. The overture was composed in 1954 in celebration of the thirty-seventh anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917, and as such has an extrovert out - of  - doors  element about it,  admirably captured in tonight's performance. Of special note was the alacrity with which Nowak contrasted the brief D major second lyrical theme with the following mock virtuosity of the dazzling passage for overlapping pizzicato strings, suggesting a 'giant balalaika' as one commentator has called it. The brief, suitably loud, and  even coarse C major flourish which ends the overture was delivered with maximum carnivalesque panache.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I heard Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto played in concert by Denis Matsuev with Symyon Bychkov conducting in which I noted the admirable dialogue achieved between soloist and conductor. This sense of dialogue was also apparent in spades tonight when the Moscow born and trained twenty-two-year-old Natasha Paremski achieved a similar rapport with tonight's conductor. In some places, notably in the more restrained second movement 'Andante' , Matsuev had achieved a more focused sense of poetic reflection, but Paremski, particularly in the outer two movements, was more convincing in terms of pianistic brilliance and wit, more 'carnivalesque' sparkle and humour; a quality very special to Russian music in general, but particularly to Shostakovich, and not always achieved by Western trained musicians. The young Muscovite also added a sense of subtle irony to the 'Andante's'  sustained mood of introspection. As with the Matsuev performance, the transition from the quasi 'Alla Breve' of the second movement's coda  to the 7/8 jauntiness of the finale's opening gesture, was handled with real finesse in matters of contrast and pacing.  Throughout Nowak and the orchestra were superb, attendant to every orchestral/pianistic detail and nuanced inflection.

Nowak's rendition of the 5th Symphony was, I am sure, every bit as compelling and urgent as Maxim Shostakovich would have made it. The term 'live' performance seems almost redundant today with many performances sounding like well rehearsed CDs, and some 'live' performances becoming as standardised as CD fare: but tonight I had the feeling of the drama of the symphony unfolding there and then; as though Nowak  had exceeded the rehearsed template in the very 'live' event witnessed tonight. From the bass recitatives which open the symphony through to the resounding Ds  of the triumphant coda, Nowak moulded an intense musical line, a kind of great arc of symphonic drama which also projected the difference, diversity of each movement -  indeed the diversity within each movement. The note on A which initiates the march sequence in the first movement had nothing of the ceremonial pomp one often hears. Nowak took it quite swiftly but with incisively inflected rhythmic control, he made  it sound more menacing than usual. Here  I didn't hear anything of Stalin; in itself the musical drama in itself deflected from extra-musical/political fantasy. The  rhetoric about Shostakovich writing a kind encrypted musical critique of the Stalinist regime was initiated by Solomon Volkov, in his 'Testament', reaching the West in 1979. Although much of his contentions have been largely discarded as spurious, to say the least, the ideas in the book are still adhered to, especially by CD note writers, as a kind of holy writ. Another cliché that  'critics' also cling to is that the second movement 'Allegretto', really a kind of 'gawky' Scherzo, is inspired by Mahler.  It is possible to hear Mahler here but having said that, it is probably possible to 'hear' Mahler from  a whole range of composers. Tonight, with Nowak's particularly pointed accents/rhythms  accentuating the 'carnival' irony of the music, I was happy to forget Mahler completely and focus on Shostakovich.

It was in the 'Largo' in particular that Nowak found an almost unbearable dramatic/brooding quality. I have seldom heard the development of unbroken cadences, after the first impassioned D minor climax, mutating into regions of ill - defined tonality captured with such conviction. And in the 'festive' finale we heard a more dark/manic quality, especially in the repeated C major fanfare motives in the second subject. At the beginning of the coda, I have seldom heard so much care taken to rhythmically/dynamically pre-figure the succession of harmonic units which develop in to the concluding  climactic D major coda proper. In other words Nowak demonstrated that this, far from being some kind of political agitprop emphasising the 'banality' of power, is in fact a most carefully and economically structured symphonic coda, in the best sense of the term 'symphonic'. The occasional moments of muddled ensemble did not detract from the generally inspired event or the general excellence of the RPO's  playing.  Nor did the fact that the size of the Cadogan Hall's concert stage only seems to allow six double basses instead of the usual eight. As it happens similar shortcomings  in Russia, at the time of the work's first performances, were a reality for the composer and in that sense a more 'authentic' sense of the work's actuality was achieved tonight.  That of course is only conjecture but conjecture, for Shostakovich and a whole Russian cultural tradition,  can be very close to irony. 

Geoff Diggines  


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