12th April 2019
Semyon Bychkov balanced the themes of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 11 with flair and sophistication
Nothing in Shostakovich’s output sounds so much like skin, bone and metal as the Symphony No 11, The Year 1905. This was the year when a tsarist army fired on protesters in Palace Square in St Petersburg, killing hundreds. It’s all there in the music: the dusty rattle of the snare drum, the dry, jangling beat of wooden percussion, and the barrage of gunfire in merciless brass. With the strings mostly peeled away to reveal these orchestral innards — the most prominent voices in that section are the softly lamenting violas — we are not so much asked to reflect as to simply get as close as possible to a pointless, machine-like slaughter. Then recoil.
Shostakovich wrote the piece in 1957, the year marked in this BBC Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The timing may or may not be key; it’s alleged that the sphinx-like composer was, in fact, pointing the finger at the Soviets for their brutal crackdown in Hungary the year before. With a great technician such as Bychkov on the podium, the question was moot. He balanced the themes of the symphony with flair and sophistication: on the one hand, the eerie build-up to the massacre and its unfolding savagery; on the other, the communist songs that Shostakovich wordlessly folded into the orchestral fabric. There are many mind-numbing Shostakovich codas, but this one, with the BBC SO’s outstanding percussionists and timpanist worked up into a furious maelstrom, was especially . . . impressive seems like the wrong word. Horrifying would do.
Was the first half supposed to be light relief? Again, too tricky to tell. The composer’s Piano Concerto No 2 from 1957 banishes heavy brass and brings back tunes, particularly in the almost alarmingly mushy second movement. Yet Alexei Volodin’s cool and calculated performance suggested something more quizzical and unsettling, as did the driven, icy playing of the orchestra under Bychkov. There was no more help in Volodin’s solo follow-up — another side to Shostakovich in just one turbulent year. This was a rarity: Three Variations on a Theme by Glinka, its meagre subject swollen and simmered into vignettes that could have meant everything, or nothing.