Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra @ Barbican Hall, London

13 February 2008

Oscar Wilde said of a cigarette, it “is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?”

The same analysis could equally apply to Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony, a work musically transcendental and thematically incomprehensible.

One is invariably unable to grasp that ultimate meaning, pointed to by the work’s many strands.

Shostakovich referred to the opening Allegretto as a “toy shop at night”, and while Andrew Huth’s programme note dismisses such a banal idea, I find it appropriate. The idea of corruption seems to me present in the symphony, which moves inexorably from a confidently ironic, caricatured opening to a final state of unexplainable nothingness; this is ironic itself, since the work also revels in the creative possibility, its most progressive music in the very final passages. The image of toys, a symbol of childhood innocence, corrupted by the elusive, distorting darkness of night works well. The movement’s caricature of the bel canto and quotations from Rossini, manipulated, are suggestive of this distortion.

One also notes the final movement’s quotations from The Ring, the timpani motifs reminiscent of Siegfried, Wagner’s Aryan innocent who is eventually corrupted by the vengeful world. Tristan and Isolde is also quoted, the two title characters of that opera unable to halt the approach of death because they accidentally entered the realm of love. Then again, perhaps the symphony moves not to corrupted nothingness, but rather to sublime nothingness, “the heart of light, the silence” of T. S. Eliot, and indeed also Wagner. Or perhaps this is all nonsense: such is the ambiguity and textual scope of Shostakovich’s final symphony that one interpretation can be as valid or otherwise as another.

The London Symphony Orchestra here played the work wonderfully, the brass solemnly majestic, the percussion chattering. Shostakovich, in this work and others of his later life, moved from the emphatic overstatement of his earlier life, concentrating on sparseness of texture and the potential of solo instrumental lines. The orchestra on Wednesday evening provided an endlessly varied, sensuously shaded sound world, the texture saturated with whispered half-ideas and delicately portentous murmurings, climaxes brutal and incongruous in a spacious, all-enveloping interpretation, rightly more concerned with subtlety and suggestion than brashness and brutality. The tempi were stunningly slow, but never to the detriment of the music. Oddly, I was reminded of Bernard Haitink’s recent interpretation of Parsifal at the Royal Opera House, organically slow musical growth and elusive beauty prized there too. I left this performance feeling profoundly unsatisfied, and for that, conductor Vasily Petrenko must be commended highly.

The concert’s first half had been disappointing. The orchestral playing in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was clean and efficient, while pianist Ayako Uehara displayed her formidable technique in the variations’ demanding solo lines. However, for all the precision and thoughtfulness of the solo playing, drama was sorely lacking, the piano’s potential range of colours and expression subdued, especially above a piano. It was a spectacle, certainly, but a distant one. Joseph Phibbs’ Shruti, part of the UBS Soundscapes Project, was a typically bizarre little affair, its shimmering landscape suggesting to me a winter sunrise, crisp yet sensual. I can’t say, however, that I’d want to hear it again.

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