BBC Proms reviews

Prom 43: Shostakovich – Symphony No 11; Dalbavie, Stravinsky @ Royal Albert Hall, London

16 August 2005

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

There’s a growing perception among the Prommers that the BBC Symphony Orchestra are in remarkably good form this season, and nothing we saw in this concert would go against that argument.

Shostakovich’s eleventh symphony made a shattering impact. With a hundred years passed since the failed Russian uprising, and the many deaths that resulted in Palace Square in January 1905, this was a more than appropriate choice. As the music began Saraste’s portrayal of the snow on the square was a touch too warm, but this only enhanced the contrast when it chilled to the bone later on.

A measure of the high regard in which the performance was held could be felt in the complete lack of coughing as the audience hardly dared breathe through the tense first movement. It’s a long time in this symphony before the full power of the orchestra comes through, and when it did the effect was ear splitting. The fugue at the start of the second movement was the savage core of the piece, Saraste securing fierce attack from the strings, pungency from the brass and incredibly loud percussion too much for one poor harpist, who had to cover her ears against the cymbal’s assault!

After this outburst of brutality the reference to the opening Palace square music that followed was all the more atmospheric, and set the orchestra up for a full blooded finish, received with a well deserved ovation. Saraste may be moving on to pastures new in Oslo, but the BBC SO’s guest conductor has done many good things with the orchestra.

Earlier Leif Ove Andsnes took centre stage for a world premiere, that of Marc-Andre Dalbavie’s Piano Concerto. Thematically this work took much from the music of Scriabin in its heavy reliance on the interval of a fourth, too heavy at times, and also from Bartok’s second piano concerto in its insertion of fast music in the middle slow movement. Andsnes was handed a solo part that concentrated on taking the fourth and progressively narrowing the distance between notes whilst speeding up, ending up with a cascade of descending semitones. He handled it effortlessly; showing wonderful touch in the slower music also, while the orchestra contributed wonderful trombone glissandi and showed off Dalbavie’s interesting instrumental combinations. Much was made in the programme of his spectral’ approach to music, but although this was difficult to fully grasp the vivid colours and harmonies achieved on stage proved more than sufficient.

Beginning the concert was a high-spirited yet functional performance of Stravinsky’s Fireworks. On reflection it was as if Saraste was saving the real fireworks for the second half, and, aided by Shostakovich’s propensity for intense drama, he gave us a memorable night.

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