Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra @ Barbican Hall, London

24 February 2008

The LSO’s Chronicle series, presenting works from 20th century Russia, tonight brought masterpieces by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto was completed in 1917 at a time when Russia was both fighting World War One and poised on the edge of revolution.

The events of the time, however, are not reflected in the music’s lyrical and luminous character.

Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji gave an excellent rendition of the concerto, meeting the work’s technical difficulties head on while remaining fully alive to the work’s emotional and poetic subtleties. Her playing projected a generous tone and her control was remarkable in the passages for the violin’s highest register. Somewhat undermining Shoji’s achievement was the subdued playing of the orchestra under conductor Yuri Temirkanov. The woodwind, so essential in this work, were particularly subfusc. As a result, some of the poetry and magic of the concerto was missing from the performance.

In contrast to the Prokofiev concerto, 20th century history weighs heavy on Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony. Its five movements are settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poems on subjects including the genocide of Kiev’s Jews at the Babi Yar ravine, the climate of terror invoked by Stalin, and the fortitude of the Russian women.

Termirkanov galvanised the LSO into playing of enormous eloquence, as convincing in the great climaxes of the first movement, Babi Yar, as in the gentle poetry of the fifth, A Career. The climax of the third movement, In the Store, was devastatingly powerful, while the fourth movement, Fears, drew superb playing from tam-tam, tuba and first horn. The second movement, Humour, was invested with vigour and irony. Temirkanov’s control of structure and pacing was excellent throughout.

The bass soloist was the distinguished Russian singer Sergei Leiferkus. An elegant and commanding stage presence, Leiferkus seemed slightly detached from the emotion of the symphony, although his musicality and diction were exemplary. The tenors and basses of the London Symphony Chorus, although not able to match the distinctive sonority of a true Russian choir, performed with admirable weight, clarity and sensitivity.

In summary, this was an extremely distinguished performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, confirming its position as one of the great works of the 20th century.

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