BBC Proms reviews

Prom 72: Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Haitink @ Royal Albert Hall, London

9 September 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

It seems hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since celebrated pianist Murray Perahia last appeared at the Proms, but he more than made up for lost time with a delicate reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor in this concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

This was the second of two concerts under their principal conductor Bernard Haitink at this year’s Proms and the pairing of Mozart’s Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony seemed logical as they both share the same key, but that’s about all they have in common as the Mozart exudes warmth and subtlety in contrast to the bleak landscape portrayed in Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony. Perahia was on scintillating form, teasing glorious sounds from the piano – especially in the quieter passages – that had a packed hall hanging on every note. He performed his own cadenzas, which grew organically from what Mozart had written, each performed with technical bravura and sensitivity. With impeccable phrasing, an unrivalled feeling for the idiom and warm, plush support from Haitnk and the orchestra this was a performance to relish. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 20 years for his next appearance.


Shostakovich’s 4th is a bit of a loose cannon amongst the Russian composer’s numerous contributions to the symphonic repertoire as it virtually disappeared following its composition in 1936, only to be premiered in 1961, twenty-five years later. Why? Many observers cite the criticism meted out to the composer in the infamous Pravda article ‘Muddle as music’ as the reason why Shostakovich refused to acknowledge this symphony purely because what he had written would have serious ramifications for his career because of its pessimism. The 4th is a leviathan amongst symphonies not particularly because of its length (just over an hour) but because of its vast orchestration and what it says. Few symphonies are as bleak, and the nihilism came across in a miraculously paced and scrupulously played performance by this renowned American orchestra.

Haitink managed to rein in the natural exuberance of the Chicago players to give a rivetingly introverted account of this troubled work, no more so than in the expansive first movement with its violent climax and the weird fairground music at the heart of the finale. In that movement as it reaches its climax you think the music’s finally going to break into a blaze of C major glory from the minor and conclude in triumphal bombast, but that modulation never comes and we’re returned to a bleak C minor wasteland of nothingness. Haitink’s control here was palpable and the playing of the orchestra perfectly in tune with the pessimism of the closing bars. The overall impact was truly shattering.

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