Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra @ Barbican Hall, London

14 November 2007

Blushing blonde, shaggy-haired soloist enliven a well played but emotionally uninvolving concert from the London Symphony Orchestra.
Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was first performed in 1953, its completion motivated by the death of censoring Stalin.

The work brims with horror at Russia’s twenty years of hardship, yet there exists an ambiguous undercurrent of optimism, or at least tentative hope for the future.

This performance, under the baton of Ilan Volkov, did not open arrestingly: the symphony rises, as does Tchaikovsky’s Pathtique, from the murky depths of the orchestra, yet here the cello and double bass lines lacked direction. Volkov preferred delicately-placed, chamber music textures to true Russian bass gravitas, making the arrival of the first climax shattering for its unexpected presence, but losing from the music a sense of inevitable forward progression.

The orchestra’s sound in the Moderato was rich and vibrant, but not particularly Slavic, the strings too polished and the woodwind pallid. There was also, here, a suggestion of overstatement in the climactic passages; the Allegro similarly was unremittingly loud, lacking a wide dynamic range and consequently losing a sense of rise and fall, ebb and flow, so crucial in this music. Far from seeming pithy and pointed, the movement sounded overdone, even vacuous.

The Allegretto was the most successful of the four movements, with perfectly intonated, lyrical horn solos, spiky violins and infinitely improved woodwind, now interacting with spark and vigour; the final movement’s opening Andante also sustained an admirable feeling of grandeur. But the resolution, however virtuosic the playing, was neither ecstatic nor brutal: fatally, it lacked a sense of conclusion.

We had taken a journey, but the orchestra’s plush sound missed the wild, gritty intensity that can make this symphony so exciting. Those who saw the Simn Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela perform the work at this year’s BBC Proms will understand just how thrilling it can be when played greatly. Here, the timpanist lost his way terribly in the final bars, but his error, far from seeming catastrophic, injected a shard of raw human drama into a performance that had, until that moment, lacked any such thing.

While Shostakovich’s work was composed at a period of rejuvenation – when the composer could finally speak his mind without fear of Stalinist censorship – Bartk composed his Viola Concerto in 1945, at the end of his life; when the idea of a viola concerto was proposed to him, Bartk (according to William Primrose) “showed no great enthusiasm”. Bartk died before finishing the work, and his pupil Tibor Serly completed it, to be premiered in 1949. Here, soloist Yuri Bashmet oddly gazed into his score for much of the rendition, and had occasional troubles with both intonation and spinning a smooth legato line (his majestic contribution to the Adagio religioso being the exception). He did, however, play with both intricacy and intensity, while I found the orchestra’s contribution flaccid and, at times, uncoordinated.

In its own unassuming way, Emily Hall‘s Plinth was the most successful item on the programme. Premiered as part of the LSO’s Sound Adventures scheme, Hall’s composition is, according to the composer, created of “transparent materials”. The lucid string and woodwind textures are punctuated effectively by brass motifs, lyrical cello lines and harp ripplings; my only concern is the overuse of percussion, which both irritates the ear and disrupts (rather than aids, as I sense Hall imagines) the work’s momentum. Still, the composer needn’t have blushed so timidly when interviewed, for her composition is of great merit and economy.

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