Let me tell you
Stratospheric Barbara Hannigan
Birmingham and BBC Proms
One to treasure
One of the
Book and CD
Book + 4CDs
Eleven 11s 7. Fourth Movement
by David Barker
Fourth Movement - Allegro non troppo: Tocsin
The Tocsin is an alarm bell, which sounds towards the end of
the symphony, seen as Shostakovich’s warning to tyrants
that the people will not be defeated. Hence my key emotion
is here defiance.
The movement begins with a march, which sounds triumphant,
but has awkward moments throughout, and outbursts of aggression.
Shostakovich uses two new songs “Rage, Tyrants” and “Varshavianka” (… the
fateful battle against our enemies has begun) as well as a
return of themes from the second and third movements. My reading
of the march is that it is the authorities signalling their
victory over the protesters, but underlying this is a recognition
of the hollowness of the victory, highlighted by mocking elements
that interject throughout.
After a massive crash of cymbals and bass drum, the Palace
Square music returns in strings and harp, and the cor anglais
sings a haunting lament to the fallen, based on “Bare
Your Heads” from III. This is brought to an abrupt halt
by tam-tam and drums, before the bass clarinet, evil-sounding,
recycles “Oh Czar, Our Little Father” from I. However,
the theme of hope “Bare Your Heads” is carried
by the whole orchestra, amidst a relentless snare-drum rhythm,
and then the Tocsin begins, for which most conductors employ
a gong or chimes. The symphony ends in a cacophony of percussion,
then suddenly silence all that is left is the echoes of the
There seem to be two different ways to approach the opening
march: very slow to begin and accelerate, or begin fast, but
emphasise the pauses. I don’t have a score to check whether
one matches the composer’s intention better, and each
approach has its merits with the right conductor.
All but one of the recordings take between 14 and 16 minutes
- unsurprisingly, it is Rostropovich who is the odd one out
at over 17 minutes.
Barshai adopts a slow start to the opening march, but he creates
a mix of triumphalism and awkwardness which I felt was very
appropriate, and the explosive end to the march is shocking.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movement doesn’t live
up to this standard: the cor anglais solo is not one of the
better ones, and the tocsin bell sounds like a door chime.
DePreist surprised me here: after being so unimpressive to
this point, he produces a finale that is better than most.
The Helsinki brass in the opening march is spectacularly abrasive,
and there is a real sense of mockery. The cor anglais solo
is heartfelt, though the bass clarinet entry is quite muted
and has little impact. The brass returns at the end sounding
just as good, but unfortunately the bell is lost in the noise.
Kitajenko’s finale doesn’t live up to the rest
of the performance: it never really takes off, and while the
cor anglais solo is good, it isn’t enough to rescue the
whole movement. So a disappointing end to an otherwise excellent
Having ploughed through the previous movement in record time,
Lazarev hits the brakes the start of the finale, but does convince
in the falseness of the celebratory mood. The cor anglais solo
is affecting, and the dramatic ending is helped by good miking
that emphasises the bell.
Petrenko attacks from the very beginning, but in doing so,
loses the mockery element so the march tends to be more celebratory
than perhaps it should. The cor anglais solo is very special,
and the ending is brilliant, with the now seemingly inevitable
exception of an almost inaudible bell.
Rozhdetvensky adopts the fast start approach, and clearly understands
the mocking aspect. Unfortunately, there are some serious problems
in the brass section, both in missed notes and intonation,
which are very off-putting, and detract, along with the most
anaemic bell of all, from what is other a very good rendition.
Having found little in the first three movements to inspire
me with the Stokowski, I find the finale to be even less satisfactory.
The march seems to miss the point entirely: if anything, it
has an element of joy and happiness in it. The huge bass drum
crash to finish the march is non-existent and the cor anglais
wobbles all over the shop. The tocsin passage is somewhat better.
Having not liked Rostropovich’s slowness in I & II,
I didn’t think it likely that it would serve the music
better here. However, he takes the march and tocsin at “normal” speed,
and it is the quiet middle of the movement that is very slow,
giving the cor anglais player a daunting challenge. The ending
is less dramatic than I expected, again taken at “normal” pace,
until the last few bars when the bass drum really takes up
I have left the best to last.
The brass fanfares at the start of the Haitink are out of this
world, and the interpretation is very fine as well. There is
a battle going on during the march between triumphalism and
hollow victory, and the latter wins out. The cor anglais solo
isn’t up there with the rest of the orchestra, but the
end is spectacular with the usual reservation regarding the
Berglund’s march is strikingly aggressive, a hint of
the jackboot dare I suggest, and while there may be little
sense of mockery, it works very well. This is emphasised when
he slows the tempo towards the end leading up to the percussion
crash, giving the impression that the triumphalism has run
out of steam. The drum entry which terminates the cor anglais
lament is explosive and surrounded in swirling, screeching
winds. The tocsin bell is second only to Caetani’s -
everything about this is superb.
Caetani’s Milan orchestra can’t hope to compete
with the Amsterdammers, but it certainly does a more than adequate
job right to the end. I really like the mockery underlying
the march here, but where this version wins over all the others
is the tocsin. From somewhere - I read one reviewer conjecture
that it is recorded - Caetani summons a true bell, very deep-voiced,
which dominates the ending as it should. This is truly an alarm
to send a message. My only reservation is that the audience
applause - no, make that cheering - begins the instant the
last note finishes. I can’t blame the audience - if I
had been in the hall that night, I would have been on my feet
straight away as well.
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