Review: Shostakovich’s Mighty Concerto

S&C‘s classical music critic Paul Valentine was impressed by a recent performance of Scriabin, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) at Portsmouth Guildhall.

This programme, directed by Alexander Shelley, establishes the BSO as a major European orchestra alongside its more established London counterparts. This is due to the influence of their Chief Conductor Kirill Karabits, their seminal academy and community programmes, and to two other smaller reasons often overlooked: their resilience and capacity for sheer hard work. The only negative thought from me during this performance was that the concert hall was just two-thirds full. It’s ironic that the marketing department has tried so hard to get more young people involved, but sadly, there has been little result. Maybe it is time for another push.

Incidentally, it was Scriabin’s lifelong friend Rimsky-Korsakov that first got me interested in orchestral music with his wonderful work Scheherazade, when I was just nine years old; the combination of beautiful music and gripping story hooked me right in. My first concert was just one year later, and the programme was no less than Tchaikovsky’s Fourth!

Shostakovich was not widely appreciated when I was young, but when my wife and I bought our first house – a complete wreck – I played his music to help me with the task of refurbishment. It worked – and some, as US marketeers would say. I remember thinking early on, that this guy shares Beethoven’s assets: an astounding ‘feel’ for rhythm and a fine ability to create musical jokes. Combine that with the ability to notate extremes of human feeling and that pretty much characterises his fantastic repertoire.

As soon as I heard the first few lines of Scriabin’s Reverie, I knew we were in for a fantastic night. I had never heard an ‘explosive’ half note before tonight, and that demonstrated the superb control that Shelley had determined with this orchestra. A brilliant and intricate opening, led into the passionate, lyrical and very sensual lines of this piece with its lovely long notes and coda. It was perfection – and a great start.

The Shostakovich violin concerto is rarely played these days, so for me a fine choice. The reason is simple – it is excruciatingly difficult and so often ends in tears. It actually did for me tonight, but they were definitely tears of pure joy. Written for another friend and collaborator, David Oistrakh, whose exploits with this and other works led to his acquiring legendary status. Tonight’s soloist was Nikita Boriso-Glebsky. He graduated from the Moscow State Conservatory with a PhD in violin performance and has received numerous awards through his dominance of both Finnish and Russian music. His performance tonight is really a first in maestro performance at the Guildhall with his instinctive ability, tremendous technique and fine control. His exploits earned him a deserved encore, for which he obliged with a wonderful movement from a Vivaldi sonata.

Of course, everything now rested on the Tchaikovsky symphony. And it did not disappoint. The fanfare opening was complete majesty leading into a wonderful precision and tightly restrained movement. The discipline of the orchestra was quite extraordinary: the first violins and brass were jelled in unison by the superb timpanist. The slight restraint in the first movement was so clever, and allowed for an immense range of emotive playing to follow that was not lost in an emotional fog as some renditions are, and it gave a kind of purity that, for me, is rarely heard and which adds to the intense tension within this first movement leading into the emotional release of the second movement which was here played with a beautiful and sonorous finesse, like the spring rivers of the Moskva. The principal bassoonist and flautist were exceptional here.

Overall, this was kind of akin to the trend in the 1980s of using contemporaneous instruments, but here it was to play in a way completely contra to the emotional exuberance of Karajan – someone I grew up with and adored. But it really worked; there was so much more in this symphony than passion: there was depression at times, there was tremendous insecurity and yet a manic love of life as well. As well as a superhuman understanding of orchestration and balance, Tchaikovsky was also quite brilliant at using the orchestra to play his own memoir…he did that exceptionally well, and Shelley, like the poet of the same name, was able to portray the emotion with finesse, accuracy and stunning brilliance, whilst also achieving a self-effacing honesty – which believe me with Tchaikovsky is not an easy feat.

Image entitled ‘Gruppenfoto der Akademischen Orchestervereinigung Göttingen im Januar 2018 in der Stadthalle Göttingen’ by Sascha Ludwig re-used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.