Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Philharmonic Orchestra @ Royal Festival Hall, London

5 March 2008

The pairing by the LPO of two works whose composition arose from the horrors of war was a feat of inspired programming but whilst Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand took flight, Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony remained resolutely earthbound.

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

With a first half of just 15 minutes, I felt slightly short-changed, despite the thrill of an exhilarating performance of the Ravel.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s playing was by turns, virtuosic, plaintive, thunderous and poetic. Writing for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War, Ravel makes no concessions to disability with his fiercely demanding writing.

There is a full orchestra to contend with as well but Thibaudet rose to the occasion; indeed watching him play was a revelation as the ear was convinced that both hands were being deployed, despite only seeing one on the keyboard. Call it a trompe l’oreille. Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO provided suitably generous accompaniment with a forward sense of propulsion resulting in the work appearing incredibly short.

After an extended interval we were treated to a performance of Shostakovich’s mighty Leningrad Symphony (no 7), which was often extremely exciting and sometimes incredibly moving but somehow the components never gelled into a coherent whole. This was mystifying as, on paper at least, this looked like a fail-safe partnership the LPO’s thrusting young Russian Music Director directing a work which must be close to his heart. It has to be said that many commentators find this Symphony to be full of hollow bombast, written whilst the composer’s home city was under siege by the Nazis in WWII, but it says as much about the horrors of war as Shostakovich’s inbuilt insecurities as a composer.

The first movement was the most successful, building in exorable power from when we first hear the snare drum’s distant militaristic pounding to the ear-shattering tutti climax, but Jurowski’s decision to place the extra brass players in the choir seemed inexplicable. It merely provided an unnecessary distraction and added little to the balance.

The sarcasm of the second movement failed to make the necessary impact as Jurowski’s tempo was far too leisurely for my liking, thus resulting in a lack of tension where it was sorely needed. The third movement Adagio contained much beautiful playing, especially from the Leader, Boris Garlitsky, but I never felt engaged as a listener.

Everything came together for the rousing finale but it all seemed a bit hollow. The orchestra sounded like a different band following the woeful Mahler 5 back in January, with each section equipping themselves well. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but Kurt Masur and Christoph von Dohnanyi’s performances set a standard in this work that have yet to be matched, never mind exceeded.

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