Wartime Scores by Britten and Shostakovich in Spectacular Hallé Season Opener

06/10/2013

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Shostakovich: Hallé, Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Samuel West (reciter), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 3. 10. 2013 (MC)

Britten: Britten in Wartime (world première)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 ‘Leningrad’

 

The friendship of the two composers Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich might seem unlikely as they couldn’t speak each other’s language but they were kindred spirits with a mutual admiration for each other. Shostakovich visited Britten’s Aldeburgh and Britten travelled to Russia to meet the great man more than once. This Hallé concert conducted by Sir Mark Elder was a fine illustration of the very different responses Britten and Shostakovich had to writing music in the cauldron of war.

Times of adversity such as war often inspire the creation of great works and the epic Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 known as the ‘Leningrad’, written during the German invasion of the Soviet Union and ensuing siege of the composer’s home city, certainly has the potential for a strong emotional impact. Shostakovich had the opportunity to leave Leningrad when his family were evacuated but he chose to stay. His attempts to join the Soviet army were thwarted owing to his defective eyesight however he was able to join the war effort by taking on the duties of a fire warden in the city. So the ‘Leningrad’ was written amidst the horrific shelling and bombing, and between frantic dashes to the air raid shelters. It seems that Shostakovich originally considered descriptive titles for each of the four movements: ‘War’, ‘Memories’, ‘Homeland Steppes’ and ‘Victory’; but then withdrew them.

As demonstrated by the heated message board activity in the days leading up to the Bridgewater Hall concert the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony is certainly a work that divides opinion. It’s a work that begs for the additional frisson of excitement generated by a live concert. While it can feel overlong and unbalanced, almost as if the music is treading water at times, the massive opening movement Allegretto can itself be a breathtaking experience. The score requires an expanded orchestra of, I should guess, around one hundred and ten players. Sir Mark Elder had ten of the twenty-two brass players positioned overlooking the rear of the stage in the front row of the choir stalls.

Under Sir Mark’s baton the magnificent Hallé played as if their lives depended on it. The proficiency, energy, character and commitment they mustered so assuredly was remarkable. Not surprisingly the so-called invasion theme of the Allegretto, originally titled ‘War’, was the highlight of the score. Commencing with the almost innocuous repetitive tattoo on the side drum, the martial character developed into an uncompromising spine-chilling drive played with a steely, stinging power and unwavering resolve. Right from the Stravinsky-like chorale opening, the varying moods of the huge Adagio were well judged without resort to melodrama. Sir Mark held together the score’s epic sweep with all the confidence we have come to expect from this inspirational conductor. By the strength of the cheering and applause from the large audience at the end of the work the ‘Leningrad’ had aroused a reaction that was deep and affecting.

Whilst Shostakovich had been repeatedly attempting to join the Soviet military, Britten, a declared pacifist, who had spent the early part of the war exiled in America, was set on avoiding active service. On his return to Britain as a registered conscientious objector an appeal tribunal allowed Britten non-combative duties composing music for radio programmes. The opening work of the evening was a narrated sequence of Britten’s incidental music for a series of radio plays serving as a commentary on wartime Britain, the majority of which were intended to be broadcast to America. I can’t pretend that the Britten in Wartime music fired me into orbit but the presentation of the music interspersed with readings from beautifully spoken reciter Samuel West was excellently played and presented. One could sense in the hall that the audience had enjoyed the experience of hearing something a little different.

Although the evening underlined some marvellous individual performances under the direction of Sir Mark, the concert was a model of remarkable teamwork. The Hallé performance of the Shostakovich ‘Leningrad’ Symphony was a triumph. It would be the icing on the cake if a recording was to be made.

 

Michael Cookson

 

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard for the next few days via the BBC – iPlayer

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