1940s Brilliance, One of Shostakovich’s Most Dour Creations and Hindemith at his Most Majestic

17/02/2017

Antheil, Shostakovich, Hindemith: Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), BBC Philharmonic / John Storgårds (conductor), MediaCityUK, Salford. 15.2.2017. (RBa)

Antheil – Serenade for Strings (1948)

Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No. 2 (1966)

Hindemith – Symphony Mathis der Maler (1934)

After many years, the BBC Phil have broken their Antheil silence again. This is their second work by George Antheil (1900-1959) within twelve months. The American composer’s Serenade for Strings dates from six years after the Fourth Symphony, which this orchestra performed last year. By the 1940s he was on the point of shaking off his rabble-rousing reputation from the 1920s. Still, he cannily enough named his 1945 autobiography “Bad Boy of Music”. The compact Serenade was written during the 1940s ferment of activity that produced the last three symphonies. The wartime Fourth bears some smoking Shostakovich hallmarks, torrid and intense. As befits the title the Serenade has a milder complexion but it is not bland. The central slow movement acts as a calming murmurous “motor” for the three-movement structure. This has a gravity that would not be out of place in an epic symphony, nor should we forget some ear-catching solos for cello, violin and viola. The first movement thrums with winged power and dynamic delicacy. It mixes catchy shreds of what I am told is The Battle Cry of Freedom with dynamically delicate and steel-cored writing that recalls Shostakovich, Rawsthorne and Roy Harris. The finale is all “Hail fellow, well met” yet acrid with the smoke of old Vienna and the possessed ebullience of the dance movements from Shostakovich’s 6th and 9th. Storgårds conducted the 40-strong string group and did so minus baton, as was also the case in the Shostakovich that followed.

Leonard Elschenbroich was the soloist in Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto. I last heard him live at the 2014 Proms when he triumphed with another subtle and unsettling work: Frank Bridge’s Oration. Again that was with Storgårds and the BBC Phil. It was good to be reminded that in this Concerto Shostakovich matches the orchestra to the subdued mood. There are no trumpets or trombones, and only two horns. Two harps seem like luxury scoring but they are used with restraint. The mesmerising gloom is underscored by gaunt duets, including a striking one for the solo cello and bass drum. The concentration was unfaltering. Even the pawky patter of the two concluding allegrettos does not break the mood. The liberal use of these “ticks” and “tocks” looks forward to the Fifteenth Symphony. This is a score packed with fine colouration and texture: witness the duo for cello and tambourine, the latter driven to a very demanding diminuendo. Orchestra and conductor caught the atmosphere perfectly, down to one of the most undemonstrative, even casual, concluding bars in all classical music.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was by no means alone in drawing on his ambitious stage works for concert-hall pieces. The examples include the opera Harmonie der Welt (1957) and the ballet Nobilissima Visione (1938). It is a wonder that there is no equivalent concert piece for Cardillac (1926). In this form these concert works quite naturally attract more performances, although Hindemith is still far from being a frequent visitor to orchestral programmes. The Symphony Mathis der Maler, in three movements, is scored for a very full orchestra. The opulent density of sound contrasted at this concert with the more muted colours of Shostakovich’s Concerto. The overall impact is majestic in the outer movements, which are coloured by an earnest chorale quality. Overall, this dramatic piece was strongly put across by Storgårds and his fine orchestra.

The programme was well received by the usual capacity audience.

 Rob Barnett

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