National stereotyping is to be avoided as much as a fresh look at an orchestral warhorse is to be encouraged. But I couldn't help concluding that this scheduling of a Russian symphony performed by a French orchestra under a German conductor was a mistake. And if the Orchestre National de France is hardly unusual in its tendency to avoid overtly national characteristics, it still seemed odd to precede Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony with a recent work by Kurt Masur's compatriot, Hans Werner Henze.
In the Shostakovich symphony that has a bigger reputation for bombast and banality than any of its colleagues, Masur's careful control of tempi and atmosphere was arguably welcome. But as this performance moved on - and the Leningrad does have its longueurs - the lack of acid in the third movement's wind chorales and rambling string recitatives, and that movement's failure to catch fire in the supposedly more incisive middle section, led to frustration and boredom.
If Masur was attempting to bring some symphonic cohesion to this rambling collection of ideas, it didn't come across. Was he saving it all for the finale, not shooting his bolt too soon? Sadly, the suspicion that there was actually no bolt to shoot was confirmed as the fourth movement was treated in much the same well-behaved way. Only the final blaze of somewhat blowsy brass playing (the big brass section here coming closest to a typically Russian sound) hinted at how this symphony must ultimately be tackled to move and challenge its listeners as it should. Come back Valery Gergiev, all is forgiven.
This perfectly decent but unexceptional visiting orchestra was in some respects shown off to better advantage in Henze's Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba. A short, five-movement spin-off from the composer's latest opera, The Hoopoe, it shows Henze at his usual business in his 80th-birthday year: colourful, energetic, lyrical, sometimes rivalling Shostakovich for cheesiness. And ultimately completely empty.Reuse content