12th April 2019
This programme really should not work that well. Three pieces by Shostakovich from 1957 sounds coherent enough, but those were a 20-minute, relatively lightweight concerto, an obscure short piano solo, and a symphony once described as “film music without the film”. Yet the house was pretty full, considering they could all have heard it live at home. And excellence in performance can go a long way in such a listing.
Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major has a perky opening introducing the woodwind choir, who have plenty to do (the horns being the only brass in the work), much of it needing to be swift and rhythmically alert, which the BBC Symphony Orchestra players unfailingly were. Soloist, Alexei Volodin was very alert and rhythmic too, as well as properly classical, keeping the second subject in the main tempo. The skeletal piano writing can become hard in some hands, but Volodin made it sound bright and breezy but never brittle. His interplay with the skittish winds was a constant delight. Perhaps London’s usual parsimonious rehearsal time adds a little edge and excitement to such passages. The coda, one of the composer’s trademark versions of the galop from the William Tell Overture, was brilliantly executed.
The gem of the work is the central Andante, a lovely poetic meditation on the simplest lyrical material. Romantic in sentiment but early classical in dropping the winds for a slow movement, the BBC strings opened the with a melancholy tenderness, and Volodin caught the mood from his very first entry. The finale’s tentative opening anapaests (thus timidity knocks at the door?) were succeeded by a dazzling and dancing account of this keystone cops chase. The classically chaste scoring was briefly adulterated by the addition of a snare drum (this is Shostakovich after all) and the close was ebullient and joyful. Apparently in 2017 the work came 19th in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame. Well, Dimitri Dimitryevich wanted to reach a wide audience and might well have taken that accolade ahead of one of his Stalin Prizes. It takes no little craft to compose a lighter work of such calibre, and the performers never for a moment patronised the piece.
Once it was finished, Shostakovich wrote to Denisov that the Second Concerto had “no redeeming artistic merits”. Yet he himself performed and recorded it. If we want to be dismissive of any work by the great Russian then his Three Variations on a Theme by Glinka for solo piano makes a much softer target. 1957 was the centenary of Glinka’s death and these three modest numbers derive from a commemorative set of eleven variations from eight composers. There was impeccable craftsmanship of course in this curiosity, but it never adds up to much and did not sound especially characteristic. But it let us hear a bit more of Volodin’s keyboard mastery without the ritual of several returns to the platform before conceding a well-planned ‘spontaneous’ encore.
The Symphony no. 11 in G minor is subtitled “The year 1905” referring to the massacre before the Winter Palace of peasants petitioning the Tsar. The composer though also told one colleague “Don’t forget that I wrote the symphony in the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising,” which Soviet troops had brutally put down. The four movements play continuously, and employ a number of revolutionary songs, though they are as much for evocative as motivic purpose. And there is no more memorable sound in Shostakovich then the very opening of the work, before any song is heard. The haunting effect of divided strings and harp, followed by an ominous timpani motif and distant (i.e. muted) trumpet calls over quiet snare drum rolls superbly portray an icy, expectant, and very tense atmosphere. Bychkov struck just the right tempo, not too slow (dragging reduces the tension here).
But then Bychkov has form in this work, having made a recording of it with the Berlin Phil which is still a leader of the pack. The BBCSO can stake a claim also, having given the first performance outside Russia in 1958. But neither CD nor, I suspect, that Western premiere matched this matchless account. It’s hard to know which element to praise most. The BBC players were superb, and in every department – at the end it took a while for the conductor to get round them all for solo or section calls, as the applause – and cheers – went on. But he began, most unusually, with timpanist Antoine Bedewi, recognition for his heroic kettle-drumming throughout. But Semyon Bychkov too was a hero, not least for maintaining a compelling narrative drive, the tension never relenting right up until the final bell stroke died away. No one who had ever doubted the stature of the Eleventh could do so after this.