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 Dvoràk, Shostakovich: Julia Fischer (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Yakov Kreizberg,  Royal Festival Hall, London, 16.4.2008 (BBr)

Antonin Dvoràk: Violin Concerto in A minor, op.53 (1879 rev 1881)

Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No.4 in C minor, op.43 (1935/1936)

As I waited for the arrival on the platform, of soloist and conductor, I started to wonder about the lack of Overtures in concerts these days. There seems to be a need to rush straight into the Concerto without preamble. Why is this? - it wasn’t always the case. Quite often, I would welcome a quick burst of The Marriage of Figaro Overture as an aperitif, or, if the Concerto is one of the shorter classical works, perhaps Ruy Blas. Dvoràk’s own Carnival Overture would have made a lovely starter. But no. Straight into the Concerto we must go.

Tonight’s performance of the Dvor
àk Violin Concerto was so good that I quickly forgot my wonderings and was immediately immersed in the excellent music making. There was a time, and not so long ago, that the Dvoràk Violin Concerto was written off as a failure. Certainly it’s no masterpiece, like the Cello Concerto which followed it by 15 years, but the more I hear it the more I realise that it’s a much better work than we were led to believe. Perhaps a younger generation not brought up on ill conceived information can see the work as an attractive piece, and a welcome alternative to the Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

Julia Fischer obviously loves this work and she lavished much care and attention on her interpretation, playing it for all it was worth; the slow movement was especially memorable, and she played it with restrained emotion and a rapt concentration. Fischer clearly enjoyed the dance rhythms and high spirits of the finale and throughout the orchestra joined in with gusto. A masterpiece? No. But it’s a fine work and with such persuasive advocacy as this it should make a lot of new friends.

After the interval the LPO was joined by a few friends to play Shostakovich’s monumental 4th Symphony. If ever there was a composition which was mad, bad and dangerous to know, this is it; it’s not the kind of music you would want to take home to meet your parents. Written at the time he was enjoying great success with his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District it was set to be premi
èred in December 1936, but after Pravda’s attack on the opera – “Muddle instead of music”, full of “raucous cacophony” and “anti-formalistic (whatever that may be) perversions” – Shostakovich withdrew the work and it had to wait 25 years to receive its first performance before the public, in Moscow in 1961.

Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony starts in catastrophe and ends in tragedy, and en route the music runs the gamut of emotions. The argument is diffuse and in the hands of a less than sympathetic conductor the work can seem unwieldy and merely a series of disparate episodes. Kreizberg rose to the challenge magnificently and directed a performance of such stature and understanding – aided by the very best playing of the LPO – that the work appeared as the towering masterpiece it surely is.

There are a number of huge climaxes throughout the Symphony culminating in one of the most explosive Shostakovich ever wrote. Kreizberg worked towards this final cataclysm, making it all the more devastating when it came and giving the coda – surely this is the dead planet of the finale of Vaughan Williams’s 6th Symphony – a real sense of the end of everything. The ensuing silence was palpable. In its 75th birthday year the London Philharmonic goes from strength to strength. This was the very greatest music making and the ovation was richly deserved.

Bob Briggs

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