Classical Review: Siege mentality
Philharmonia RFH, SBC, London
Wednesday 28 January 1998
RFH, SBC, London
After a brief wartime success, Shostakovich's Leningrad symphony soon came to be treated, in the West, as a musical pariah. The critic Ernest Newman neatly located it "along the 70th degree of longitude and the last degree of platitude". Now it's played reasonably often and a new received opinion prevails, based on the composer's alleged memoirs, Testimony. The Leningrad is no longer a musical act of defiance against Nazi invasion; it's "about the Leningrad Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off".
Should it make a difference to the way we value the music? For many, it does. The longueurs are longueurs no more. What was once a loose and rambling structure is now seen as an epic canvas of great subtlety and power. The passages that still sound thin or crude are meant to sound thin or crude. In some mysterious way, it's all part of Shostakovich's subversive political message.
After the Philharmonia's performance under Vladimir Ashkenazy on Sunday, I can agree that the Leningrad is a much better work than Newman allowed. The long, repetitive march-crescendo in the first movement - the passage most sneered at in Newman's day - is actually one of its most thrilling inspirations. But even in a performance of this intensity and imaginative control, the Leningrad still has its loose and thin moments. What a let- down the scherzo is after the first movement. As for the finale, the return of the work's first theme on massed brass at the end was stirring enough on this occasion, but the rest of the movement is rather like a film score without a film. Provide your own mental images of warfare or Stalinist oppression if you wish - I can't help thinking there's something faintly pornographic about that.
I've heard Mahler's Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Deaths of Children") described as pornographic too. Why dwell on such a theme, and to music of such luxurious sweetness? The truth is that Mahler understood the complexities of grief as few composers have. Baritone Mathias Goerne here gave the most moving and beautiful performance I can remember in any concert hall. The sheer sound of his voice would almost be enough in itself - sweet, but with great inner strength. But it was a musical, expressive triumph too, accompanied by Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia to something near perfection.
Earlier, three works by the 28-year-old Scottish composer David Horne had their European premieres in the Philharmonia's Music of Today series. There are still traces of the polished, empty, academic modernism in which he was evidently trained. But something warmer, fragile, but genuinely lyrical is struggling to get out, and in places - like the quiet coda of Sparks or the sombre, melancholic opening of Unbound - it emerges, fully fledged. The mini piano concerto Flex showed a more energetic side: spiky pointillist modernism, yes, yet there was real energy and flow of ideas. Good for the Philharmonia for keeping Music of Today going, and for choosing such interesting subjects.
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