Compelling Shostakovich and Debussy from Noseda and LSO

26/09/2016

Debussy, Haydn, Shostakovich: London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Barbican Hall. London,  22.9.2016. (GD)

Debussy:  La Mer

Haydn:  Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major

Shostakovich:  Symphony  In D Minor Op. 47

With Debussy’s La Mer, we come into an extremely competitive field of recorded and ‘live’performances, many of which have set performative standards. One has only to think of: Toscanini, Boulez and Dutoit, to name just three. But despite, and maybe because of, such competition Noseda and the LSO did very well. Noseda got the LSO to play in an overall French style, with a subtlety of phrasing and an engaging finessing of orchestral balance and timbre. In De l’aube à midi sur la mer (From dawn to noon on the sea) Noseda ensured that all the movement’s themes – some relating to later developments – emerged seamlessly from the movement’s harmonic/textual structures, although occasionally I missed the sense of flow heard with conductors like Boulez, Martinon and Ansermet. The movement’s blazing coda sounded exceptionally scenic and powerful, all fitting the context of an epic musical seascape.

Jeux de vagues (Play of the waves) maintained the sense of being an intricate filigree of tonal cascades and interweaving melodies. Noseda chose a slightly  swifter tempo than is usual, but thereby managed to intone the feeling of surging energy, again an important component of this musical seascape. Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue between the wind and the sea) was superbly timed and paced to ensure the unleashing of the final climax – a titanic clash of the natural elements. The ‘soaring melodic theme’ which develops after an initial tutti crash and ff drum stroke was taken at a slightly slower speed. At first I thought this a rather strange deviation from the score, but Noseda managed to make it cohere and integrate with the final climax and coda. The climax was not just impressive in its visceral effect, it had a wonderful sense of arriving and also of setting the scene (so to speak) for the highly rhythmic and energetic coda. There were moments in the ‘play of the waves’ where I would have welcomed more dialogic finesse, both in the sense of gauging subtle transitions, and varying the sense of intricate dialogue, Toscanini and Boulez being truly magnificent here. But I find it hard to imagine Toscanini and Boulez, with their fantastic ear for such detail, ever being challenged, let alone equalled or surpassed. Also, at times, the woodwind could have been more clearly balanced with the strings, and with non antiphonal violins throughout the concert, some points of violin and string counterpoint could have been projected with more clarity and lucidity.  But although these shortcomings (there were others) are worth mentioning in a critical review, they really are not much more (in the context of the overall excellence) than marginal quibbles.

Noseda’s rendition of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony was every bit as compelling and urgent as many other recent live and recorded renditions have made it. The term ‘live’ performance seems almost redundant today with many performances sounding like well rehearsed CDs, and some ‘live’ performances becoming as standardised as CD fare: but tonight I had the feeling of the drama of the symphony unfolding there and then; as though Noseda  had exceeded the rehearsed template in the very ‘live’ event witnessed tonight. From the bass recitatives which open the symphony through to the resounding Ds  of the triumphant coda, Noseda moulded an intense musical line, a kind of great arc of symphonic drama which also projected the difference, diversity of each movement. The note on A which initiates the march sequence in the first movement had nothing of the ceremonial pomp one often hears.  Noseda took it quite swiftly but with incisively inflected rhythmic control he made  it sound more menacing than usual. Here  I didn’t hear anything of Stalin!  The musical drama in itself deflected from extra-musical/political fantasy. The rhetoric about Shostakovich writing a kind encrypted musical critique of the Stalinist regime was initiated by Solomon Volkov, in his ‘Testament’, reaching the West in 1979. Although many of his contentions have been largely discarded as spurious, to say the least, the ideas in the book are still adhered to, especially by CD note writers, as a kind of holy writ. Another cliché that ‘critics’ also cling to is that the second movement Allegretto is really a kind of ‘gawky’ Scherzo  inspired by Mahler. It is  possible to hear Mahler here but having said that, it is probably possible to ‘hear’ Mahler from a whole range of composers. Tonight, with Noseda’s particularly pointed accents/rhythms  accentuating the ‘carnival’ irony of the music, I was happy to forget Mahler completely and focus on Shostakovich.

It was in the Largo in particular that Noseda found an almost unbearable dramatic/brooding quality. I have seldom heard the development of unbroken cadences, after the first impassioned D minor climax, mutating into regions of ill-defined tonality captured with such conviction, almost with the dark conviction of the great Mravinsky, in his various ‘live’ performances.  And in the ‘festive’ finale we heard a more dark/manic quality, especially in the repeated C major fanfare motifs in the second subject. At the beginning of the coda, I have seldom heard so much care taken to rhythmically/dynamically pre-figure the succession of harmonic units which develop into the concluding climactic D major coda proper. In other words Noseda demonstrated that this, far from being some kind of political agitprop emphasising the ‘banality’ of power, is in fact a most carefully and economically structured symphonic coda, in the best sense of the term ‘symphonic’. The occasional moments of muddled ensemble (especially in the brass) did not detract from this generally inspired musical event.

After the Debussy we heard a crisply articulated rendition of Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. LSO Principal Trumpet, Philip Cobb, using on a traditional valved trumpet, played in total accord with the interweaving orchestral parts in the first movement and finale – a nice sense of dialogue. The chromatic elements in the Andante were realised with the appropriate finesse of phrasing. Noseda conducted a sized-down LSO, giving it a ‘period’ ‘feel’ with plenty of lift and bounce, compounded by some bravado hard-stick timpani playing. I found no programmatic links here with the Debussy and Shostakovich, but it was nice to hear this trumpet classic, which is certainly not over-played today, despite myriad excellent recorded performances.

As an encore Cobb, now playing a flugelhorn, with vibraphone accompaniment, gave us an enchanted ‘unannounced’ refrain, certainly having a jazz and/or cabaret feel, with a touch of melancholy, or maybe parodied melancholy?

Geoff Diggines

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