BBC Proms reviews

Prom 7: Shostakovich, Bartók & Tavener @ Royal Albert Hall, London

23 July 2014

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

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

Careful, considerate and diligent are three adjectives that spring to mind when considering the merits of the BBC SO’s former Chief Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, so pitting these qualities against the scabrous wit and intensity of Shostakovich’s blistering 10th Symphony was always going to result in an interesting showdown. Written after a ten year hiatus following the 9th, it is no coincidence that Shostakovich returned to the symphonic form following the death of Stalin. The Russian composer had felt the clenched iron fist of the dictator’s wrath on numerous occasions, so during Stalin’s lifetime he had to tread a careful tightrope between pleasing the Communist regime and giving voice to his true musical self.

Bělohlávek’s approach allowed the brooding opening ample time to breathe whilst never allowing it to drag, and he built the climaxes organically to thrilling effect. The second movement, a blistering four minute frenetic indictment on Stalin’s regime, was technically accomplished yet could have done with more bite. Enriched with some mellifluous horn playing from Martin Owen, the expansiveness of the third movement suited Bělohlávek’s thoughtful approach to the work more than the scherzo. I couldn’t help but feel that as the sonority of the final movement gave way to its heady, exuberant conclusion that the conductor’s foot was hovering dangerously over the brakes. This symphony’s almost delirious dance of celebration that draws it to a close was lacking in the sense of abandonment it cries out for. Having said that all sections of the BBC SO acquitted themselves with honour, with particularly eloquent solo contributions from members of the woodwind section.

Before the interval we were treated to two contrasting works; the posthumous world premiere of John Tavener’s Gnosis and Bartók’s 2nd Violin Concerto. Whilst Shostakovich’s music is indivisible from politics, so the late British composer’s is from religion – in his case a devoutly held belief in the Orthodox Church. Scored for string orchestra, percussion, and alto flute with a mezzo-soprano acting as a cantor intoning the words ‘Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Jesus and There is no god but God’ in various languages drawn from Christian, Hindu and Muslim traditions, Gnosis charts a path well-trodden by the late composer. For this particular listener the repetitive ‘pedal’ for the double basses and the mundane vocal line, often mirrored by the alto flute as an echo, made the work feel a lot longer than its thirteen minutes. Having Sarah Connolly as soloist was a luxury – it’s just a shame that her prodigious talents weren’t allowed full flight due to the limitations of the work itself. Michael Cox’s contributions on the alto flute were exemplary.

Isabelle Faust was the hardy soloist in Bartók’s 2nd Violin Concerto, delivering a reading that was at turns virtuosic, meditative, and technically assured, transporting the listener into the composer’s vivid and original sound world with aplomb. Needless to say, Bělohlávek and his players provided the perfect support for her winning interpretation.

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