United Kingdom Elgar, Shostakovich:Eleanor Dennis (soprano), Simon Callow (speaker), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 15.2.2015 (JQ)
War and Revolution
Elgar – Polonia – symphonic prelude, Op. 76
Sospiri, Op. 70
Une voix dans le Désert, Op. 77
Shostakovich – Symphony No 11 in G minor, Op 103 (The Year 1905)
This most unusual programme juxtaposed some of the music that Elgar wrote during World War I with one of Shostakovich’s less frequently played – and seriously underrated – symphonies.
When the war broke out in 1914 Elgar was aged 57 and too old for active service but it is clear that he wanted to ‘do his bit’. On 17 August, within days of the declaration of war, he was sworn in as a Special Constable and in April 1915 he enrolled in the Hampstead Volunteer Reserve. Though he seems to have taken his duties seriously in both these capacities, inevitably it was as a composer that he was able to make his biggest contribution to the war effort. As Richard Bratby pointed out in his very comprehensive programme notes, initially Elgar suffered a creative block, so troubled was he by the war. However, eventually he rallied and during the course of the war he produced a number of works. These ranged from his incidental music for a rather twee play, The Starlight Express – Elgar appreciated that people needed a distraction from the war – to the deeply-felt and very fine Binyon settings that comprise The Spirit of England.
Effectively, Polonia was the piece that cleared his writer’s block. He wrote it in 1915 for a fundraising concert in support of the Polish Victim’s Relief Fund. It’s a fantasy in which Elgar made use of a number of Polish tunes, including some traditional melodies as well as themes by Paderewski and Chopin. It could so easily have been a patriotic potboiler but it’s not. Elgar weaves his material together skilfully and scores the work most effectively. Admittedly, the ending is a bit grandiose but one must recognise the times in which it was written. There are a surprising number of quiet, reflective passages and these were played with delicacy by the CBSO while the more opulent sections were delivered stylishly, the Symphony Hall organ often enriching the textures. Andris Nelsons’ conducting indicated that he was completely unapologetic about the piece, and rightly so.
It was perhaps stretching things just a little to include Sospiri in this programme because, though it was written in 1914, the composition was finished before the outbreak of war. The piece was actually inspired by Elgar’s sadness at the death the previous year of a close friend. No matter; the sentiment of the piece was appropriate and justified its inclusion in this context. Scored for strings, harp and organ, the latter used with great discretion, it’s a touching, tender little gem. The performance was caringly shaped by Nelsons and beautifully played.
During the course of the war Elgar collaborated three times with the Belgian poet, Emile Cammaerts, writing melodramas to words by Cammaerts which dwelt on the plight of German-occupied Belgium. The first and most convincing of these was Carillon, Op 75 (1914). There followed Une Voix dans le Désert (1915) and Le Drapeau Belge, Op. 79 (1916). Today we heard Une Voix dans le Désert which, unlike the other two melodramas, includes a part for a solo soprano as well as the spoken narration. Simon Callow is no stranger to these scores: he has recorded all three (review). Here he showed a fine feeling for the text which he put across very well. Eleanor Dennis sang the soprano solo that comes in the middle of the piece and she impressed. Her tone was warm and pleasing; the only snag was that her words were not often clear and this was a pity because a logistical problem meant that most of the audience did not have access to the programme, which included the text. Much of the score is restrained, if not subdued and Nelsons and the CBSO played it with great finesse. Une Voix dans le Désert may not be a masterpiece but it’s worth hearing and I doubt it’s ever had a finer, better-detailed performance than this one. Following on from his account of the Second Symphony earlier in the season (review) it’s great to find Nelsons exploring less familiar Elgar and with such conviction.
Andris Nelsons has conducted quite a number of Shostakovich’s symphonies. I wasn’t wholly convinced by his live recording of the Seventh with the CBSO (review) but his gripping and masterly performance of the great Eighth with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (review) indicated that he has a genuine grasp of the Soviet master’s music. Here I was delighted to find him tackling the Eleventh, a score that I feel has been underrated.
I can understand why this symphony has been dismissed in some quarters. For one thing, there’s not a great deal of traditional symphonic development, least of all in the extensive first movement, which is more of a tone painting. Also, though there are passages of eloquence – the third movement and the haunting passage for cor anglais and strings near the end of the finale – the score is no match for mighty utterance that is the Tenth Symphony, nor for the Eighth. And yet, there is a great deal in this score to admire and to provide food for thought. Shostakovich was nothing if not enigmatic and I can’t help feeling that it’s not insignificant that he depicted the failed revolutionary uprising of 1905 in this often bleak and elegiac score and then went on to commemorate the successful 1917 revolution in the often banal and much less convincing Twelfth Symphony. If the issue of the lack of symphonic development is to be overcome the Eleventh needs a performance of conviction and that’s just what Nelsons gave us.
The long first movement (some 17 minutes here) contains several passages in which not a lot seems to happen – at least on the surface. Entitled ‘The Palace Square’ it depicts the peaceful assembly of a crowd of people in front of the Winter Palace; they had come to petition the Tsar. This movement is all about tension and atmosphere; it’s a vast curtain-raiser to the tragedy that is to unfold. It’s essential that a mood of glacial stillness and tension is established from the outset and then maintained. Nelsons and his players succeeded in this, not least in maintaining the tension. In the second movement, ‘The Ninth of January’ the brutal dispersal of the crowd is depicted. Much of the music is vivid and graphic with Shostakovich calling on the large brass section and the substantial percussion battery – a timpanist and seven colleagues. After a vicious fugal passage for strings, bitingly articulated here, the music reaches a massive climax; quite rightly, Nelsons didn’t hold back on the decibel levels here This climax was a real assault on the ears but it made all the more effective the sudden cut-off where Shostakovich reverts to the glacial stillness of the symphony’s opening – except that now we hear an appalled stillness after the brutality.
The third movement, ‘Eternal Memory’ is an extended lament for the fallen innocents. It begins with a long, poignant theme played by all the violas. The CBSO viola section excelled here, playing with great expression while Nelsons exerted great care over the moulding of the music. (Rightly, the viola section was singled out for applause en masse at the end of the performance.) This movement, an intense elegy, was played with great eloquence by the CBSO. There was driving urgency in the finale, ‘The Alarm Bell’. Nelsons inspired playing of tremendous bite. The decibel level is consistently high for much of this movement though I can’t help feeling that the composer’s invention is at its weakest here. Yet another immense climax gives way to what is arguably the most poignant moment in the work. Shostakovich returns once more to the material with which he’d begun the symphony nearly an hour ago and from it rises a long, deeply felt cor anglais solo. This horribly exposed solo was played with great distinction by Jane Marshall. As the music picks up once more in vehemence there’s a swirling undercurrent on the bass clarinet. I’ve never heard this brought out so strongly as it was here and the effect of hearing this threatening material along with pounding drums was to emphasise, for me, the darkness in the score. The symphony achieves a thunderous conclusion but the music is not celebratory in tone. Instead, enigmatic as ever, Shostakovich sets up a major-key/minor-key clash, emphasised by the dissonant clamour of two sets of tubular bells. No empty revolutionary triumph is depicted here.
One member of the audience, perhaps deceived, started to applaud immediately but, mercifully, stopped at once while Nelsons and the orchestra held the moment, allowing the bell tones to decay naturally. Then, and only then, was applause for this electrifying performance justified.
The applause was sustained and enthusiastic and that was as it should be for this was a concert hat reminded us once more what a fine partnership there is between Andris Nelsons and the CBSO. We should make the most of it while it lasts.