Fiona Shaw spoke the words at the start of Thursday's LSO concert, and she spoke them in semi-darkness, her tone sometimes agitated, sometimes strident, never melodramatic. The truth isn't. There are those who would accuse Shostakovich of playing at melodrama in his Seventh Symphony. But feel the subtext: the resentment, the outrage, runs deep.
This symphony, the "Leningrad", effectively begins before the great siege it was said to commemorate: Stalin and Hitler - they're interchangeable. The opening pages "read" like a propaganda poster: happy Soviets bounding towards a future of hard work, industrial growth and military might. The LSO strings, resolute here under the baton of Mark Wigglesworth (his debut with the orchestra), played up the propaganda - heavy bows, big tone, stalwart, unflinching. So, right from the start, Wigglesworth stood toe- to-toe, eye-to-eye with the score. The big picture was fine. He kept us well in the frame, mindful of atmosphere, hungry for confrontation. In many respects it was a sensational performance.
The seemingly innocuous little tune that slowly but surely infects the first movement was presented here without so much as a half-smile. Flat, expressionless, staring you out. Stalin would surely have found it charming, a real toe-tapper. And therein lies the irony. But Wigglesworth didn't signpost it - he played it absolutely straight, and the horrific mutation was all the more pitiless for it. Maybe, just maybe, the advancing "war machine" reached saturation point a little too soon. The LSO brass are a mighty force, especially when augmented antiphonally as here. They need careful handling. The question arose: who was in control here?
That's a little unfair. The uncompromising nature of Wigglesworth's reading was clearly of his own making. OK, so the dynamics ranged from very soft to very loud with not a whole lot of variation between. Yet the direct, unhoned quality of the sound world (very Mahlerian) was apt: the bass clarinet leading the second movement's dance of death, the plangent alliance of harps and woodwind cleaving the opening of the third like a rough Orthodox plainchant.
So, premature climaxes apart, why the air of qualification in this review? Well, there is still a sense (on this showing anyway) in which the tone of Wigglesworth's reading - for all his self-evident involvement (why, he even writes his own programme notes) - feels impersonal, once-removed. But then he's a very young man with a lot of living to do. Ultimately, of course, Shostakovich's notes (like Akhmatova's words) will out. And in the long uphill climb of the symphony's coda - music rising from near- extinction to stand very tall indeed - there was an overwhelming feeling that the will of a people really had triumphed over the propaganda.
Edward SeckersonReuse content