Lighting Effects Heighten Mood Changes in Shostokovich’s Eleventh

06/10/2012

 Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Vadim Gluzman (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 05.10.2012 (SRT)

Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 The Year 1905

New season, new music director. Tonight the RSNO welcomed Peter Oundjian for his first concert in charge. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to welcome him to Scotland, with billboard adverts, posters, and a gigantic photograph plastered, pretty effectively, across the side of the Usher Hall. Does he live up to the hype? It’s obviously too early to say, but the signs are good. I’ve said before that Oundjian hasn’t really made an impression on me yet, and some of his previous concerts left me feeling fairly cold. I’m happy to report, though, that tonight’s left me feeling rather more positive.

Programming Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony in your first concert is a bold statement of intent. This huge (and hugely difficult) work puts both orchestra and conductor through the wringer, so how to approach it? Oundjian’s first move was to read out a pre-prepared speech on the work’s background and programme, a move that at first struck me as staid and, frankly, fairly odd, especially when put alongside the famously communicative Stéphane Denève, Oundjian’s predecessor.

Then, however, the symphony began in a hall that was much darkened, the icy strings depicting the Palace Square as through the morning mist. The lights slowly rose, imperceptibly at first, presumably evoking the dawn, and it occurred to me that Oundjian’s speech was, in fact, an actor reading his lines, a theatrical introduction to a theatrical reading of the symphony. The lights were dimmed and brightened at various stages in the work to heighten the changes in mood, such as in the silence that follows the massacre, or the return of the Palace Square music in the finale. It’s the score with something extra added on – “Music Plus”, if you like – and it won’t appeal to everyone. What will be interesting will be to see whether this will be a part of Oundjian’s individual style. After all, later in the season he will perform Ma Vlast with the pictures of a “photo-choreographer” (!) and the final concert will feature part of Walton’s Henry V with an actor.

What of the performance itself? The key thing was the way Oundjian held together and gave some shape to a work that can sound flabby and inconsistent in some conductors’ hands (there’s a strong argument, after all, that it’s simply too long and could have done with a shrewd quantity of editing). The overall arc of Oundjian’s approach tended to transcend the ebb and flow of the score with its regular sequences of tension and resolution. Most impressively, he knew when to hold something back so that, for me, the climax of the symphony came not with the massacre but with the final pages, which sounded altogether more tense and strained than anything that had gone before. In Oundjian’s hands the ending is no celebration of Soviet victory but a grim summation of impending doom (followed by a sudden blackout in the hall). I found it very effective, a culmination as well as a termination, and it made me see his gift for musical architecture in a way that hadn’t struck me before. The orchestra responded by playing out of their skins, the brass and percussion in particular producing moments that raised the roof. But other details stick in the memory too, such as the demonic swirl of the clarinets towards the end of the finale, or the phenomenal tones of the violas as they play the theme for the workers’ funeral march.

Next to this, anything else has to seem pretty minor, though that is to demean a Russlan overture notable for the precision of its string runs. Vadim Gluzman’s approach to the Tchaikovsky concerto was that of a (fairly brazen) showman, technically very impressive and often exhilarating, particularly in the finale. His attack was a touch on the raw side, however, and the more lyrical aspects of the concerto often passed him by, particularly in the first movement. However, the overall sweep of the performance is undeniable and the general effect is mostly very appealing. It’s telling, though, that for the first time in a long while I noticed the really quite lovely contribution that the winds make to this work, a testament both to beautiful playing and a carefully constructed sound world.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available here until Friday 12th October.

Simon Thompson

Comments

Comments are closed.

Recent Reviews

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • NEW! Edinburgh Usher Hall 2019-2020 Orchestral Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2020 Ring Cycles __________________________________
  • NEW! Roman River 2019 Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! Ex Cathedra’s 50th Anniversary Season in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Geneva Grand Théâtre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! 2019-20 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden __________________________________
  • NEW! City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Musikfest Berlin 2019 from 30 August to 19 September __________________________________
  • NEW! 2019 BBC Proms 19 July – 14 September __________________________________
  • NEW! Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Zurich Opera House in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! English National Opera in 2019-2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! ENB in 2019-2020 and Updates on their New London City Island Home __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music and Other Events at the Southbank Centre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Cleveland Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music at the Barbican in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Met: Live in HD in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Free Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera Loki’s Madam Butterfly can be seen in Alton and London this September __________________________________
  • NEW! The Joys of the Marlboro Music Festival: Chamber Music’s Best-Kept Secret __________________________________
  • NEW! MATTHEW BOURNE’S ROMEO AND JULIET IN CINEMAS FROM 22 OCTOBER __________________________________
  • NEW! CELLIST JOHANNES MOSER IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • NEW! CHORUS MASTER STEPHEN DOUGHTY IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE __________________________________
  • REVIEWED! Ron Howard’s Pavarotti in Cinemas 13 July (Preview) and Nationwide (15 July) __________________________________
  • MULTI-FACETED MUSICIAN JOY LISNEY IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE __________________________________
  • ‘MUSICAL MAGIC’: AN INTERVIEW WITH VIOLINIST HENNING KRAGGERUD __________________________________
  • CONDUCTOR THOMAS SANDERLING IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • CONDUCTOR ÁDÁM FISCHER IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH GERMAN SOPRANO PETRA LANG __________________________________
  • HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH ITALIAN BARITONE FRANCO VASSALLO __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH LISETTE OROPESA AS SHE RETURNS TO LA OPERA FOR ORFEO ED EURIDICE __________________________________
  • Search S&H

    Archives by Week

    Archives by Month