BBC SSO Opens Season with Dramatic and Uncompromising All-Russian Programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Shostakovich: Barry Douglas (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, / Donald Runnicles (conductor), Barry Douglas piano, City Halls, Glasgow, 25.09.2014. (CG)

Mussorgsky: A Night on the Bare Mountain
Scriabin: Piano Concerto in F sharp minor Op. 20
Shostakovich: Symphony no.10


Mussorgsky’s programmatic work is a piece of graphic imagery, powerful emotions and dramatic writing. It is characterised throughout by a wonderful ‘raw’ quality in both the musical content and its compositional process, and is a work of great depth, powerful emotions and cinematic scope – a fitting work with which the BBC SSO chose to open their 2014/15 season. The version played in tonight’s concert was Rimsky-Korsakov’s re-composition and indeed the imprints of the venerable Russian composer’s gift for orchestration are evident throughout. Under Runnicles’ inspired direction, the orchestra gave an authoritative account of the work breathing life into Mussorgsky’s compelling imagery with soulful and uncompromising playing. Glasgow’s City Halls shook and shivered in response, transporting us all onto the ‘bald’ mountain. Terrorised and enthralled in turn, we experienced the magic of the BBC SSO’s electric performance.

The centrepiece of the evening’s programme was Scriabin’s only piano concerto featuring the pianist Barry Douglas. Written in 1896 this early work is an unapologetic and almost surreal evocation of Chopinesque textures and musical materials. Here Scriabin dialogues with the ghost of Chopin and evokes the sound of his contemporary, Rachmaninov. Douglas relished the improvisatory nature of the writing where emotions are palpable and never far from the surface. This composition is shaped by Scriabin’s  love and knowledge of the instrument and he plays with the Romantic tradition throughout. Barry Douglas’ performance acknowledged all of this and more. His technical exuberance matched the orchestra’s passionate renditions of the lyrical lines; he delighted in the reflective quality of the work and embraced the often-heady and idiosyncratic Romanticism of the concerto. In his hands, the piano’s textures became translucent and evocative; the clarity of Scriabin’s musical thought processes surfaced. This was finely executed and sensitive rhapsodic playing.

Shostakovich’s monumental symphony is driven purely by a dramatic imperative and while initial listeners decried its pessimism, it is ultimately a work of passion. In the composer’s own words from 1953, his aim “was to convey human feelings and passions in this work”. It is perhaps all too easy to descend into cliché when performing a work such as this but Runnicles and the BBC SSO ran no such risks tonight. Theirs was a spine-tingling and honest interpretation of Shostakovich’s gripping tenth symphony.

The Moderato’s brooding introduction was hauntingly evoked in the lower strings. In Runnicles’ expert hands the meticulous architecture of this work came to life and narrative of the Moderato was timed to perfection. Layers of woodwind lines, languorously expressed, emphasised the clarity of Shostakovich’s textures. The orchestra, under Runnicles’s forceful direction, crafted the unyielding urgency of the movement with deliberate focus.

The relentless pace of the brief second movement, which features some very savage musical imagery, brings to mind Solomon Volkov’s contentious claim that Shostakovich meant this movement as a depiction of Stalin. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant here; indeed this suggestion does Shostakovich a huge injustice. The movement’s spectacular and broad-based imagery evoke a vivid and impressive landscape rather than just one man, megalomaniac though he may have been.

The multifaceted but compositionally compact third movement, marked Allegretto, is hallmark Shostakovich. The BBC SSO revelled in the composer’s controlled yet inexorable exploitation of the full potential and range of the symphony orchestra. This was conveyed with commitment and integrity. Under Runnicles’ baton, opposing sentiments (that arguably only Shostakovich can evoke with such intensity in the space of one movement) of desperation and pathos were convincingly portrayed.  The musical monograms of DSCH and EAEDA (a musical note-spelling of the name Elmira) dialogued persuasively and longingly, brought to life by some superb woodwind and brass playing.

The intense last movement refers to previous musical material in various ways. Here too the performance was characterised by meticulous playing and sensitive direction.  The orchestra reconciled the impish Shostakovich with the tragic. The musicologist David Fanning is right to suggest that “determination and defiance are inscribed all over this work” – these qualities were not lost on Runnicles and the BBC SSO.  They gave this magisterial work an uncompromising and superlative performance that elicited standing ovations from a moved audience.

Christina K Guillaumier