Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony No. 7 is, perhaps, a work more admired than loved, but it certainly commands respect. In the hands of Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra it found exceptional champions.
Bychkov was born in Leningrad, and his mother lived through the siege of 1941-44 which inspired the symphony’s composition. A personally intense reading was therefore inevitable. But Bychkov’s alertness and sensitivity to Shostakovich’s subtler moments came as a more satisfying surprise. Of course, there was plenty of anger and despair in the performance, with clamorous brass and violent percussion striking very hard in the first and last movements. But in Bychkov’s hands the incessant snare drum which introduces and accompanies the whole of the first movement’s massive crescendo sounded vulnerable and dance-like rather than militaristic. The ensuing parade of musical effects was similarly re-thought, and never overdone: plaintive woodwind poised over yearning unison strings; ringing brass fanfares (there were nine horns in all!); delicate additions from two harps.
Likewise, the bouncing rhythms of the second movement and the gentle largo of the third never slipped into brashness or melodrama. Conductor and orchestra also held their nerve for the mighty fourth movement, which thundered to its climax without seeming vulgar or emptily triumphalist. Throughout the symphony, Bychkov held and controlled the massive forces of the BBC SO under close scrutiny, whilst permitting individual interpretations and playing of the highest order.
This sense of common purpose and mutual respect was also evident in Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos, which filled the first half of the concert. Here, the bond between soloists and conductor was all the more apparent, given that the pianos were played by sisters Marielle and Katia Labèque, and that Marielle is married to Bychkov.
The concerto was also written and performed during the Second World War, although in terms of content and purpose it couldn’t be further from Shostakovich’s massive symphony. In many ways it typifies the émigré Czech’s unsteady efforts at adjusting personally and musically to his new life in the United States. It also tells of Martinů’s experiments at this time with tonal sonorities and rhythmic blocks. There are plenty of neo-Baroque and jazz flourishes, and the occasional Czech inflection. But despite the volume of instrumental activity, there is not much in the way of solo-orchestral interplay. No masterpiece, perhaps, but the concerto is still exhilarating to hear, and the brilliant showmanship of the Labèques also made it a feast for the eyes. They banged their way through the toccata-like opening allegro, before slowing down for an eerie and reflective central adagio. But virtuosic thrill rather than subtlety makes this concerto attractive, and both soloists served up a suitably crowd-pleasing and frenetic finale.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.