Shchedrin, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky with the LSO

Shchedrin, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky: London Symphony Orchestra, Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Valery Gergiev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London. 24.3.2011 (CG)

Rodion Shchedrin : Lithuanian Saga, Symphonic Fresco for Orchestra (2009)
Dmitri Shostakovich ; Violin Concerto no.1 in A minor Op. 99 (1948, revised 1955)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ; Symphony no 2 in C minor Op.17 (“Little Russian”) (1872, revised 1879)

Before the concert, it was announced that, at the request of Gergiev and Kavakos, the evening would be dedicated to the people of Japan, and that a collection would be made, the proceeds of which would assist the Japanese people following the recent tragic earthquake and tsunami. This was entirely appropriate, since the LSO has strong links with Japan, and recently completed a tour of the country. It would have been nice to hear some Japanese music to complete the dedication in addition to the Russian feast from three periods advertised.

Shchedrin, born in 1932 and Russia’s best-known living composer, based his Lithuanian Saga on a battle, which took place in 1410 between the Teutons and the Lithuanians. The Teutons were roundly defeated, and the result was the consolidation of a Polish/Lithuanian alliance, which proceeded to dominate the region for many years. The work was first performed by Gergiev and the LSO in May 2009, at the 13th Vilnius Festival. It commences with some strident brass, then there is some foreboding string music (very Russian, this) before the piece descends into battle, complete with a battering of violent percussion noises and patriotic hymn-like passages. There is an extended and absolutely extraordinary chromatic passage for timpani, on which Nigel Thomas should be congratulated for his astonishing dexterity and virtuosity. Finally, there’s a celebration of victory, accompanied by a lot of metal percussion. It’s all rather loud and brash, and great if you warm to that sort of thing, but I couldn’t detect much real substance. To my surprise, Rodion Shchedrin, now nearly 80, came onto the platform to acknowledge the applause.

Now it was the turn of Leonidas Kavakos to appear, and we were plunged into the First Violin Concerto of Shostakovich. It is from the same period as the wonderful Tenth Symphony, and it shares some of its qualities; both were secretly composed during one of the darkest artistic periods of the Soviet Union, when Shostakovich’s music was heavily criticised, forcing him to produce lightweight works in an “acceptable” idiom for public consumption. It was only with Stalin’s death in 1953 that Shostakovich dared to reveal his “secret” works. It is no wonder, then, that the music is so emotional. I would so have loved the composer to hear tonight’s performance; Kavakos is just astonishing. Intense beauty of tone comes as standard. So does completely sure intonation. Added to which, it’s all so darned intelligent.

The first movement, a nocturne, broods as only Shostakovich broods – long lines for the solo violin over heaving cellos and basses, gradually becoming more and more impassioned. Kavakos’s technical dexterity, which, to say the least, is formidable, came to the fore in the second movement, which dances and hurtles remorselessly in a way so typical of the composer in his mordantly witty mode. It’s fantastically exciting, almost too exciting, with conductor and soloist driving at breakneck speeds. Next comes a passacaglia, with moods not dissimilar to those of the first movement, but there is strongly tonal harmony, and considerable intensity. Now comes the cadenza, and it is not only ferociously difficult to play, but dramatically absolutely gripping. The whole audience was with Kavakos here – the coughs which had threaten to plague earlier sections of the piece subsided and you almost wanted to cheer when finally the orchestra burst in for the last movement, giving the violinist a short breathing space, “Short” is the key, because in less than a minute he was off again, dashing around the instrument like someone possessed.

The warmest possible applause followed, of course, and then Kavakos returned to the platform and gave us an encore of the most sublime unaccompanied Bach. I wanted to cry. He’s not at all flashy, not a show-off, just a dedicated and altogether superb musician at the height of his powers.

I hadn’t heard Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, the “Little Russian”, for about thirty years. It is eclipsed by the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth, and thus seldom performed. It’s a shame, because it contains many of the hallmarks of the composer’s later works, as well as possessing the charm of his earlier phases. He was already determined to establish a new Russian way of doing things, turning away from Beethovenian models to produce something somehow nationalistic. That is why he included Ukrainian folk material, although he was never to return to its use in quite such an overt form again.

Gergiev and the LSO gave a stupendous reading of the score, technically brilliant and, moreover, as “Russian” as you could want. At times some may have found it over the top; I thoroughly enjoyed it. Gergiev’s relationship with the LSO works extraordinarily well; the orchestra plays for him with fire and passion, as well as the most delicate sensitivity. Yet his conducting is highly unorthodox. He lays out the orchestra in what is nowadays the generally less-favoured way with second violins on the right, cellos and violas to left-middle and right-middle respectively, and double basses to the far left. He does not use a baton. Sometimes there is no discernable beat. He’s given to shaking the fingers of either hand, and I’m not sure what he means. Another frequent left hand gesture looks a bit like throwing a piece of waste paper into a waste bin – what does that mean? At times, even when the music is at its most impassioned, he looks almost nonchalant. From the point of view of conducting technique, he’s the opposite of a Boulez. But who cares? The orchestra loves him, and the results are terrific. Part of the secret lies with his magnetic eyes. And of course he’s an exceptionally gifted musician.

A truly memorable concert.

Christopher Gunning