Gubaidulina: Violin Concerto No. 1 “Offertorium”
Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad”
A disturbing report reached me shortly before this performance from the Rheingau Festival near Frankfurt where Nelsons and the CBSO were to have performed Mahler’s mighty Second Symphony last week. A strike by Lufthansa’s cabin crew meant that they turned up very late and were forced to cancel the Mahler; Nelsons apparently went straight to hospital feeling the strain and chorus master Simon Halsey bravely stepped in to conduct the choral parts of the Mahler and some other titbits. Poor CBSO, poor Nelsons, and a very disappointed audience.
So it was with a considerable sigh of relief to see the CBSO on stage and to see a fit-looking Andris Nelsons bound onto the podium in Lucerne.
The artistry of violinist Gidon Kremer inspired Sofia Gubaidulina to compose her First Violin Concerto at the end of the 1970s. Shostakovich gave her the following advice: “Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Continue on your own incorrect path”. Gubaidulina conceived her concerto as a sacred act, an “Offertorium,” which also refers to another famous “Musical Offering”: the work is based on a transformation of the famous “thema regium” (“king’s theme”) which Bach improvised at the court of Frederick the Great. The work is multi-layered and composed as one vast movement, the theme undergoing a number of variations. The work grew on me. At the outset I was puzzled by what sounded like a contemporary version of Rimsky’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” but then came shrieking trumpets, whooping horns, oriental percussion; the young Latvian soloist superimposed sliding harmonics and other wondrously eerie sounds from a luscious golden-toned Stradivarius (lent to her by Gidon Kremer). The work was not easy to grasp but full of musical interest; it was never dull – the double basses trembled, the timpani thundered, the gong crashed. After the climax, the work ended in a deeply moving and ethereal Arvo Pärt-like reverie, the soloist bringing the work to a ravishing close on a soaring high D. Baiba Skride impressed throughout, showcasing her lyricism, virtuosity and emotional depth. Nelsons accompanied sensitively with a clear feeling and liking for the work.
From the very first bars of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (‘Leningrad’) we knew we were in business. Nelsons set off at break-neck speed with full-blooded strings. The side drum heralded the start of the brutal “invasion”; Nelsons however had timing difficulties at the beginning getting the side drum and orchestra to play together. Nelsons was soon beaming and revelling in the oncoming menace and jumping around on the podium like a young child on a trampoline. The orchestra overwhelmed the audience with its furious and fearsome sound; it had been enough in 1941 to frighten the Germans and its savagery now frightened the Swiss. The two middle movements, a Scherzo and an Adagio, gave Nelsons an opportunity to show off Birmingham’s excellent woodwind section, though at times I felt the strings lacked bloom. Soon Nelsons was building the crescendos in the final movement which had no difficulty bringing the house down in the work’s jubilant close.
This is a work one does not want to hear on CD, unless one wants to disgruntle one’s neighbours. It works so well in the concert hall due to its enormous variation of dynamics and Nelsons was a master contrasting the almost inaudible pianissimi and deafening fortissimi. (The back row of the woodwind needed padded surround-sound ear protection making them resemble Formula One racing drivers).
The CBSO generally gave a very good account of themselves, standing alongside some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras at this Festival.