Petrenko and RLPO Impress London with their Berio, Britten and Shostakovich

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berio, Britten, Shostakovich: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vassily Petrenko (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 3.11.2013.  (GD)

Berio:  Quattro Versioni Originali della ‘Ritirata notturno di Madrid’
Britten: Suite from Death in Venice (arr. Steuart Bedford)
Shostakovich :Symphony No. 15, Op. 141


The last symphony of Shostakovich is full of allusions: allusions to his own works, especially the satirical Ninth Symphony, and also the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies. And there are references and quotes from Glinka,Tchaikovsky  Mahler,  Rossini and especially Wagner, from the Ring and Tristan und Isolde. These references are most skilfully woven into a symphonic structure that never sounds anything other than Shostakovich.

There are also literary allusions at play. The original idea came from an ironic and bizarre story by Chekhov. The composer tells us that he imagined the opening movement as a toyshop at night where the toys come to life after the shopkeeper has left. This has a distinctly Hoffmannesque feel, but it also has been used in other literature and cinema taking on associations with malevolence and terror.

Not that Shostakovich meant this work to be any kind of ‘horror’ symphony. On the contrary, and especially in the play of all kinds of percussion  (no fewer than 14 percussion instruments) a lighter mood is suggested. But on the other hand death is a prevailing theme of the symphony – what the composer called the Death-Song; from the references to Wagner’s Die Walküre (Wotan’s death pronunciation in the second act,   and Siegfried’s funeral music). The references from Tristan are more to do with love. But ‘love’ in Tristan really conflates with death. Petrenko and the RLPO  on brilliant form caught these parodies, ironies with great conviction; the first quotation of the Rossini Galop  theme from the William Tell Overture had a real rhythmic bounce which made the banality of its sudden intrusion all the more telling. Also Petrenko gave the twelve tone canonic rows, in the first movement, a sense of astringency, but also of lightness. Another paradox.

Petrenko maintained an essential underlying pulse in the second movement with its sombre brass chorales and  lamenting cello solo, with an ominous lamenting chorale theme from a solo trombone. The huge build up over the opening bleak theme had all the impact one could wish for. But in the last analysis I missed some of the sheer terror heard in the superb Mravinsky version from a live Leningrad performance in 1976. This was no doubt also to do with Mravinsky’s very Russian sound, particularly in the brass with their grainy raw edge and in their snake-like growling ostinato figurations.  Critics (especially English critics) tend to hate this Russian sound. But I believe this is the very sound the composer wanted, especially in this symphony. The scherzo third movement was again very well played and contoured. But I missed that last ounce of sardonic, even black humour, especially in the trombones descending glissando in which we hear Shostakovich’s signature theme DSCH.

In the finale Petrenko managed the transition in the strings from the opening Tristan theme to the consoling lyrical major key theme with great sensitivity, particularly in matters of phrasing. The prominent oboe theme in the succeeding Allegretto, intoning a song by Glinka, was again beautifully phrased and played, but I felt that Petrenko held on to such passages, underlining their ravishing lyricism, but also introducing a static quality and losing  the sense of movement implicit in the score. In the already mentioned Mravinsky live recording this all flows spontaneously, with an inevitable sense of an unfolding drama.  The last catastrophic climax, with quasi references to the ‘invasion’ sequence in the first movement of the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, came across with considerable power,  the repeated ground bass clearly audible.  It was all very impressive, and the long, mysterious coda, with its pedal point on the strings ( described by one commentator as a ‘musica  angelica’) and the tick tock of a clock sounding over the array of percussion was expertly conducted and played. The last harmonic shift to A major giving way to a D with a last allusion to the Tristan motive sounded clear and inevitable. The coda’s return to the toy shop sounds of the first movement leave us with a kind of question mark. Are the moving toys, puppets inviting us to play with them? Or are their strange ‘unheimlich’ sound-world meant to haunt us?

Benjamin Britten’s last opera Death in Venice also deals with themes of death. But unlike the Shostakovich symphony it thematises not only death, but death and desire, akin to Tristan and Isolde.  The opera is, of course, based on Thomas Mann’s quasi autobiographical novel of the same name. Ideally one should experience the complete opera to fully understand Britten’s music. This orchestral suite (arranged by Steuart Bedford, who worked closely with the composer in his last years)  functions perhaps more as a kind of introduction to Britten’s sound-scape.  Each of the seven interrelated sections has a title, such as: ‘First Beach Scene’ and ‘Tadzio’.all played continuously without breaks. The orchestration  here is more sparse and chamber-like than is usual.  Britten loved Venice and often visited the city, and he was undoubtedly moved by the homo-erotic desire which runs through Mann’s short novel – a desire focused around the young Polish boy Tadzio and Aschenbach’s infatuation with him. In fact, the narrative is very open to a Freudian reading in the sense that extreme desire can transform as well as damage the subject. It is related to what Freud called the ‘Death instinct’…an emphatic sense of ‘jouissance’ (the nearest English translation to the French term, which has a sexual inflection, is ‘bliss’) which can expend so much emotional/libidinal energy and excitation that it takes over and diminishes the subject, and can lead to an ecstatic death. In Aschenbach’s case this is further complicated by his deeply repressed fear of illicit sex which he sublimates through aesthetic/philosophical contemplation. When his repressed desire is unlocked, a traumatic state emerges shot through with strong libidinal excitation. Although Tristan is a commentary on desire and death it is a desire which is certainly not developed through repression!    In the Mann novella Aschenbach eventually falls victim to a cholera epidemic which becomes  a kind of metaphor for both subjective death and in a wider sense a fin-de-siècle decadence – a theme  Mann became obsessed with.

I am not sure how much of this registers with Britten. As far as I know he made no reference to either Freud or Wagner, although he is known to have admired the German composer considerably. Britten’s orchestration is extremely nuanced and subtle; like Shostakovich he uses percussion instruments with perception and imagination. The suite opens with a brilliant timpani fan-fare. I am not sure of the significance of Gamelan rhythms, which Britten uses extensively, in relation to the narrative content? But overall Petrenko and the orchestra delivered a most empathetic reading of  this strangely beautiful music. Special credit must go to the brass (in similar glissandi figurations to the Shostakovich symphony), and the many woodwind clusters and solo projections

The concert opened with Quatttro Versioni Originali della ‘Ritirata notturno di Madrid’ one of Berio’s brilliant arrangements of another composer’s work lasting around 7 minutes. Boccherini spent his later years in Madrid and Berio uses the finale of a string quintet from 1780 which depicts Madrid’s midnight curfew as the city watch approaches and then marches away into the distance,  becoming louder and then fading away …a kind of tutti rhythmic ostinato crescendo-decrescendo. In Berio’s transcription percussion and brass are dominant in the march-like sequence making a staggering concert effect. As the writer of tonight’s programme note puts it; ‘an intoxicating collage of sound’.

Before the concert started Petrenko gave the audience a brief summary of each piece to be played. I am not sure whether or not this is a more Russian tradition? It certainly does not happen much in the West, but it’s the kind of thing Bernstein used to do. Perhaps it should happen more frequently here and elsewhere. Not only is it informative, but it helps to engage listeners more, breaking down the sometimes remote impression many conductors give.

Geoff Diggines.  





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