Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 51: Shostakovich – Symphony No 8; Ravel – Piano Concerto, Alborada del Gracioso @ Royal Albert Hall, London

22 August 2005

Most definitely a programme of two halves – the relatively sunny disposition of Ravel in the first, the uncertainty and aggression of wartime Shostakovich in the second.

The Ravel first – fleet of foot and with a pianist excelling with her dazzling fingerwork. Helene Grimaud may have employed a few curious tempo choices during her reading of the Piano Concerto, but few could doubt the piece was completely under her fingers, enabling her to get away with a slower than usual start to the slow movement and a couple of crude pullbacks.

Now and then her back arched theatrically as she played, an affectation that could have done her some harm had the performance not been good. The LSO under Bernard Haitink were meticulous in detail if perhaps not fully idiomatic – the piano/orchestra dialogue in the first movement could have done with more exuberance and wit, observations that could also be levelled against their Alborada, Ravel’s grotesque orchestration not always exploited in an otherwise flawless technical performance.

For 76 years old, and given his relatively recent health problems, Haitink was looking remarkably sprightly and as he came to the fore with the Shostakovich the music really took off in a performance of enormous sensitivity, tension and power. Having been one of the first Westerners to record the Shostakovich symphonies, he is a highly respected if polished interpreter, and showed us exactly why. In this he was aided by excellent cor anglais work from Christine Pendrill, who handled the tricky long phrasing of her first movement solo with apparent ease. The stark climax of this movement was a monumental wall of sound, rounding off a sequence longer than most Haydn symphonies.

We gathered ourselves once more, and Haitink led us through the march-like terrain of the second movement, much more smoothly than a Russian orchestra would have done. No matter, for the following Allegro was angry, woodwind shrieks raining like bombs from the sky, violas together as one, hammering out their ostinato. The brass, too, were excellent, the trumpet’s quasi-military solo in the trio a poignant moment before the whole section united in a gigantic statement of the next movement’s passacaglia theme.

Taken up by the cellos, this sounded like a far-off collection of monks intoning a chant, and formed the desolate emptiness over which the remaining music slowly moved. Time almost stood still, even in spite of a couple of errant mobile phones, until Haitink brought us to the chink of light at the start of the final movement. Now we were ready to move on, though the anger and uncertainty remained. As always the drama of this symphony hit hard, and Haitink made sure we would remember it for a long time.

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