Memorable Commemoration of the Russian Revolution at the Three Choirs Festival

29/07/2017

3-choirs-festival

Three Choirs Festival [4] – Shostakovich, Mozart: Katharine Fuge (soprano); Gillian Keith (soprano); Joshua Ellicott (tenor); Robert Rice (bass); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra / Adrian Partington (conductor). Worcester Cathedral, 28.7.2017. (JQ)

Mozart – Mass in C minor, K427

Shostakovich – Symphony No 12 in D minor, Op 112, ‘The Year 1917’

The programme which Adrian Partington had been invited to conduct tonight offered one of the oddest juxtapositions that I can recall. There’s no connection, implicit or explicit, between the two works on the programme so I think the best approach was to treat the evening as the musical equivalent of the proverbial ‘game of two halves’.

We’ll never know why, after composing a significant amount of the music between 1782 and 1783, Mozart left his C minor Mass so frustratingly incomplete. We have only two movements from the Credo and there’s no Agnus Dei. It seems unlikely that he ran out of inspiration: more likely he was distracted by his frantically busy musical life. Thank goodness that the music which he left us is of such high quality.

There was a good deal to admire in tonight’s performance. Once again, the Festival Chorus delivered the goods. The Philharmonia offered distinguished playing – there was an evident ‘period’ influence with the strings deploying very limited vibrato. Adrian Partington obtained a committed and vital account of the mass from his chorus and orchestra though I must admit that I was somewhat disconcerted by the swiftness of some of the tempi.

The solo parts are rather unbalanced in that Mozart gave his tenor and bass very little to do – the tenor sings in two movements and the bass is restricted to an appearance in the Benedictus. I can only presume that had Mozart completed the mass his male soloists would have featured rather more. As it was, Joshua Ellicott and Robert Rice made the most of their limited opportunities. The work is also unusual in that there is no alto part; rather, Mozart used two sopranos. Katharine Fuge made an immediately favourable impression in the ‘Christe eleison’ section of the Kyrie. She sang the music gracefully and coped extremely well with the outrageously wide compass of the part. She brought fine expression to her singing as well. Miss Fuge also had the ‘plum’ assignment of ‘Et incarnatus’. This was one of the instances where I was thoughtful about the tempo that Mr Partington set. It certainly flowed and my initial reaction was to wish for a little more languor in the way the music was allowed to unfold. However, as the aria – for that is what it is – progressed I realised two things. Firstly, at this tempo the wonderful description of it by the late Michael Steinberg as ‘Susanna goes to church’ was really apposite. Secondly, the text tells the joyful news of the incarnation of Christ and taken this way – and sung as it was by Katharine Fuge – the aria was indeed the telling of Good News. I thought Miss Fuge was outstanding here. Her singing was simply lovely, the gleaming top register of her voice giving great pleasure, and she sang the piece with a winning smile on her face; that smile came through into her singing. Special mention must also be made of the three woodwind principals from the Philharmonia who were, I presume, Luke O’Toole (flute), Gordon Hunt (oboe) and Robin O’Neill (bassoon). Mozart gives these three instruments delectable music in this movement and the parts were delivered with great finesse. Towards the end there’s a four-way cadenza in which the soprano and woodwind players weave their lines together: the episode was magical.

I wish I could be similarly enthusiastic about the singing of the other soprano, Gillian Keith. Sadly, she seemed to have something of an off night. Her tone had an edge to it which I found unappealing. Furthermore, there was a tendency to overshoot notes at the top of phrases. It seemed to me that she was not at ease in the highly ornamented ‘Laudamus te’ – perhaps she was discomforted here and in the Benedictus by the brisk tempo. In the duet ‘Domine Deus’ her voice did not blend well with that of Miss Fuge.

The choir did well. I admired the strong attack at the start of the Gloria; this was singing that was full of energy. The ‘Qui tollis’ was strongly projected though the tempo was swifter than I’m used to hearing and a slightly broader speed would have allowed the choir to invest this dramatic and imposing music with even more weight. In the extensive ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ fugue, which closes the Gloria, the singing was disciplined but in this resonant acoustic it wasn’t possible to achieve ideal clarity between the vocal lines. The choir was spirited in the opening movement of the Credo and also impressed in the Sanctus.

I’ve admired Adrian Partington’s conducting on many occasions in the past but this time I couldn’t quite get onto his wavelength. Clearly – and rightly – he wanted to inject vitality into the music and in another, less resonant acoustic this might have worked very well. However, I wish he’d given the music rather more space in which to make its mark. I timed the performance at approximately 51 minutes, which is pretty swift. Despite its many virtues this was a performance that didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

What are we to make of Dmitry Shostakovich? Throughout his adult life he was in and out of favour with the Soviet regime, but was he a closet dissident or a trimmer who kept his head down while others expressed their opposition to the regime more openly? My own view, for what it’s worth, is that Shostakovich may possibly have supported the principles of Communism but was profoundly unhappy with the way successive regimes implemented Communism. If he kept his head down and voiced his opposition in more subtle ways than others, through his music, who are we to judge? The Soviet Union must have been a precarious and highly dangerous place, especially during the Stalinist era, and one shouldn’t be judgemental. His music is full of ambiguities and I think there can be little doubt that these ambiguities were rooted in his ambivalence towards the Soviet regime

The more I’ve thought about it the more convinced I’ve become that his ambivalence to the regime manifested itself yet again in his Twelfth Symphony, which was was completed in 1961 and which was dedicated to the memory of Lenin. He gave it the title ‘The Year 1917’ and that, coupled with the dedication, surely suggests a work displaying loyalty to the Soviet Union and its founder. I must be honest and say that that’s how I’ve previously viewed the symphony. Moreover, in purely musical terms I’ve always considered the Twelfth – along with the highly dissonant Second and Third – to be the weaker brethren among Shostakovich’s symphonies. Both the material and the way in which it is developed seemed much less memorable than is the case with many of his symphonies. I hadn’t listened to it for quite a while so I felt I needed to do some homework in preparation for this concert and listening to various recordings and reconsidering the work in general gave me pause for thought. Perhaps there was more substance to the symphony than I’d previously discerned? Would tonight’s performance confirm that? The answer to both those questions is “yes”.

The Twelfth Symphony was some time in gestation: Shostakovich may well have started it as early as 1959 but though two movements were apparently complete by 1960, the ninetieth anniversary of Lenin’s birth, work on the remainder was delayed by a number of factors. The work is scored for a large orchestra, including triple woodwind, four horns, a full brass complement, timpani, a sizeable percussion contingent, and strings. The four movements, which play without a break, all bear titles: ‘Revolutionary Petrograd’; ‘Razliv’; ‘Aurora’; ‘The Dawn of Humanity’.

The symphony opens with an arresting, broad theme, heard first on the cellos and basses; this is one of two themes that are unveiled in this movement which recur frequently throughout the course of the symphony. The Philharmonia’s lower strings dug into the theme, delivering it powerfully, and as other instruments entered they took their cue from that. The main body of the movement is an allegro which depicts the ferment of Petrograd in the Revolutionary period. (There were two revolutions in Russia in 1917: the first, in February, overthrew the Tsar and the second, Bolshevik-led, deposed the provisional government in October, ushering in Communist rule: the months in between were a period of great instability.) Shostakovich’s turbulent, often frenetic music depicts this period of ferment. The music was superbly delivered by the Philharmonia, galvanised by Adrian Partington’s direction. I admired the way tension was maintained even in those episodes where Shostakovich eases off either the pace or the dynamics – or both – for a short while.

I’ve always felt that ‘Razliv’ is the finest movement in the work and tonight’s performance confirmed that judgement. Razliv is the village outside what is now St Petersburg where Lenin went into hiding before returning to the city to lead the October revolution. Almost throughout the 12 minutes or so for which the movement plays the dynamics are subdued but in a good performance – and this was most certainly a good performance – the air is pregnant with tension. In his excellent programme note Gwilym Bowen made a very perceptive point, one that epitomises the ambivalence to which I referred earlier. Bowen points out that “threat…lies heavy throughout” and then asks whether this threat is “of Lenin being found, or of Lenin himself?” To me, that hits the bulls-eye squarely. This was a very fine reading of the movement. Adrian Partington struck an ideal tempo and then maintained focus and concertation throughout – as did the players. Fairly unusually in a Shostakovich adagio there’s no towering climax; instead the music proceeds quietly but tensely on its way punctuated by a series of eloquent woodwind solos. Here the Philharmonia’s principal flute, clarinet and bassoon were outstandingly eloquent. My only disappointment was that the audience, usually so well disciplined at Three Choirs, disturbed the atmosphere with a good number of distracting loud coughs during this movement.

Aurora was the battleship from which shells were fired at the Winter Palace in Petrograd to set the Bolshevik Revolution in train. This is depicted by Shostakovich in a brief movement that makes its effect almost exclusively through rhythmic energy. The taut, tart rhythms were precisely and menacingly played by the orchestra. In the first half of the movement there’s great, suppressed tension – the gathering storm? This came over really well and then the percussion section is unleashed as Aurora fires her guns. Gwilym Bowen tells us that, in fact, the guns fired blank shells. That may be the case but tonight the Philharmonia didn’t sound to be firing blanks: the movement was very exciting – and not in a superficial sense. I still can’t escape the feeling that the last movement, ‘The Dawn of Humanity’ is the weakest of the four. The very title invites the thought that this is a piece of political hack work. And yet…… True, the overall tone is optimistic but there are a number of passages in which the mood becomes relatively reflective and this performance seemed to home in on those episodes while not underplaying the more brazenly public passages. Adrian Partington brought the work to a stirring conclusion, broadening the tempo to emphasise the Big Finish. We march forward confidently towards a new dawn – or do we? Was Shostakovich celebrating the Revolution or was he deliberately over-celebrating it and thereby registering a coded dissent? We shall never know.

I wonder how often the Philharmonia has played the symphony: not very often would be my guess. Interestingly, though, the orchestra – or an earlier generation of its membership – has quite a place in the work’s performance history. The Philharmonia gave the UK premiere of the piece, under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962 and the following year they recorded it – only the second recording of the work – with Georges Prêtre. Tonight, the current generation of the Philharmonia gave a superb, committed performance in which they sounded thoroughly convinced by the work. I’m sure that Adrian Partington must have learned the score for this occasion. I thought he conducted it marvellously. He brought out all the aspects of the score extremely well and led a performance of great conviction.  This was certainly the work’s first performance at Three Choirs; indeed, I haven’t been able to trace a prior performance of any of the Soviet master’s symphonies at the Festival.  It’s good to report that this performance was accorded a vociferously enthusiastic reception by the audience – and rightly so.

John Quinn 

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