Prom 8 was a delicious Prokofiev sandwich with a piece of rare Shostakovich as filling. The BBC Philharmonic, under its Principal Conductor Gianandrea Noseda, gave a thrilling performance.
This all-Russian concert had something of an Italian theme. Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses by Michelangelo Buonarotti was written in celebration of the great Italian’s 500th anniversary and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was of course based on Shakespeare’s tale of tragic lovers in Verona. You have to struggle to find an Italian connection with Prokofiev’s War and Peace overture, although the opera was premiered in Florence, but holding the whole thing together was the BBC Philharmonic’s Milanese Principal Conductor Gianandrea Noseda.
Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace, which was performed complete at the Proms three years ago, is a great distillation of Tolstoy’s epic novel. The overture, which is rarely performed in productions of the opera, is as short as the book is long. At just 5 minutes, it was the perfect curtain-raiser, giving a tantalising taste of the major motifs from the work. The orchestra gave a detailed account, picking out the themes of love and war beautifully and raising expectations for the works to follow.
Expectations were fulfilled. The Shostakovich Suite was stunning, a terrific performance throughout from orchestra, conductor and soloist. Shostakovich is said to have considered the Michelangelo Suite, written just a year before his death, as a 16th Symphony. It certainly has a lot in common with the 14th, being a song-cycle of tremendous depth exploring death, despair and oppression. The orchestra is expanded from the earlier work to include brass and woodwind, which brings some warmth and lightness into the gloom. Unlike the 14th, there is some respite with love, tenderness and the poet’s adoration of his countryman Dante sitting alongside the more pessimistic material.
Michelangelo may not be best remembered for his poetry but he was a prolific writer of sonnets and other poems throughout his long life. The Suite consists of settings of 11 poems, with titles (created by the composer) such as Truth, Love, Anger, Creativity, Death and Immortality. Non-Russian speakers receive the texts at several removes, as they are translated into English from Russian translations, based on German versions of the original Italian.
The 14th Symphony features bass and mezzo, but Shostakovich wrote this for just one vocalist. This puts a great responsibility on the bass, who has to sustain our attention throughout a long work. Ildar Abdrazakov did that very successfully. His beautiful tone, with each note perfectly placed, carried every syllable across the vast expanse of the Albert Hall. He has great presence and I suspect we will hear a lot more of him in the future. If he’s as good on stage as he is on the concert platform, he’s definitely worth looking out for.
The performance was gripping throughout, from the brass opening through the beautiful orchestrations of Love and the inevitable percussion effects and fire of Anger to the stillness of Night. The final movement Immortality leaves us feeling more uplifted than some of Shostakovich’s works, thanks to the perky little tune that he wrote at the age of 9. It is delightfully light and childlike, beginning in the flutes and repeated in the percussion, then strings, before the work comes to a solemn close. Noseda, Abdrazakov and the BBC Phil have recently released a recording of this work and I would expect sales to rocket following this performance.
After the hushed intensity of the Shostakovich, Romeo and Juliet sounded almost garish at times. This is a work that, surprisingly, had never been performed at the Proms before 1982. Since then, it has made up for lost time, having been performed on 14 occasions in different combinations of movements, including 3 times in the last 4 years. If it has been over-exposed, it was nevertheless the perfect end to this programme, which otherwise might have been a little too austere for some people. Noseda chose a substantial selection of 13 movements from across all three of the suites Prokofiev arranged of his ballet music. This was another fine performance, from a brisk Montagues and Capulets and a playful, almost knowing Child Juliet to a violent Death of Tybalt and very moving death scene.
Noseda was fascinating to watch. He was completely immersed in the music and it showed in his every movement, but without the ostentation seen in some other conductors. He has such a way with Russian music, he must have picked up a thing or two in his role as Principal Guest Conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre.