Nuanced and Stylish Playing from Labèque Sisters in Mozart

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 18 – Mozart, Shostakovich: Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 31.7.2015 (GD)

Mozart: Concerto for two pianos in E flat major, K 365
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C major, ‘Leningrad’

In a recent BBC Radio 3 interview the Labèque sisters spoke of how attentive they are to changing performing styles in the context of the enormous influence of various ‘period’ performing practices. And in tonight’s programme notes an earlier recording the sisters made, again with Semyon Bychkov (Marielle’s husband) and the Berlin Philharmonic, was referred to as ‘big boned’. So I was expecting a sized-down orchestra with some ‘period’ style concessions to ‘period’ instrumentation. But no, it was a ‘big boned’ BBC Symphony Orchestra with no period concessions as far as I could discern. But despite these issues of performing practices there was much to admire here. The two sisters were in total dialogue with each other, as were Bychkov and the orchestra, all to be expected in a kind of ‘family act’. But it was the superbly stylish and nuanced playing of the sisters, with such delicacy,  finesse and stylistic perception, so there was nothing rigid or predictable here. This was playing I am sure Mozart would have admired!

Of particular excellence was the way in which Katia and Marielle contoured the interplay with orchestra, especially in the brief development section of the first movement with its superbly timed shift to the minor and in the B flat Andante the chamber-like intimacy of the conversational exchanges between pianos and two cantilena oboes. Also excellent were the radiance of the finale and the way in which the wonderfully contrasted C minor development section was superbly balanced. It is almost certain that Mozart played the concerto, on tour, with his older sister Nannerl, further proof, if such proof is needed, of Nannerl’s qualities as a virtuoso pianist.

Although I was sitting in the stalls, quite close to the orchestra, there were certain instrumental details (especially in the woodwind and horns) which were blurred and difficult to hear. And although there were some patches of rough orchestral ensemble especially in the finale I put most of  this down to the huge cavernous acoustic of the Albert hall. With such acoustical limitations it would have been  interesting to hear the version Mozart made in 1781 in which he added two clarinets, trumpets and drums, though this version is disputed. Mozart is known to have regularly made such amendments, sometimes at quite short notice.  But overall this was a most distinguished K 365 with some of the best piano playing I have heard.  

As an encore the sisters played the fourth of Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos. This was quite a long and complex work for an encore but the sisters explored every facet with a quite staggering range of insights and contrasts. And in a strange way, although coming from a entirely different compositional style and age, it made a wonderful contrast to the Mozart concerto.

Everyone knows  that Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was written during the Nazi siege of  Leningrad  as it was then known in  1941. The symphony is a kind of musical statement of this crisis point in World history. It was microfilmed and flown to the US where it was given its Western premiere in 1942 to huge acclaim. The orchestra was the NBC Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor  Arturo Toscanini, by common consent the greatest living conductor at the time. Toscanini, not given to hyperbole, said simply that he ‘heard the suffering of the Russian people in the music’, and I think it is good to remember that the West was much more sympathetic to the Russian experience than it tends to be today with the complex Ukrainian conflicts. Russia and Stalin were seen as less of a threat to world stability than Hitler and the Nazis. But today it is still worthwhile to be aware of the work’s context, and at the same time experience the symphony on its own terms as a great 20th century symphony – in some ways a huge concerto for orchestra.

After the bold diatonic opening theme in C major, and the brief and reflective second subject what follows can be seen as completely ‘alien’ set of new ideas initiated by a two bar ostinato rhythm on side-drum in  the remote key of E flat. Tonight Bychkov managed the opening quite well; he initiated the side-drum theme ( the ‘invasion’ theme) in a very sotto voce manner around ppp. In the vast Albert Hall acoustic it was barely audible – indeed there was some tentative and irritating clapping from the arena – the Prommers are not such an attentive audience as they are made out to be . There was also much coughing and other noisy distractions, as well as the sound of champagne bottles being dropped and other distractions from the audiences in boxes.

Bychkov built up the side-drum theme and tune, which has a cross-over effect from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra’s fourth movement, with great skill adding climax upon climax with the ‘Maxim’s’ theme from Lehar’s Merry Widow clearly ‘there’. It is strange to have a Lehar theme in this ‘anti Nazi’ work – Lehar being Hitler’s favourite composer.  But Shostakovich was a consummate ironist, sometimes, as here, a rather cryptic ironist. Bychkov also made clear the various key changes, with the arrival of full brass, and he delineated the opening theme now in minor key, with a total assuredness. But at the height of this climax I was not really overwhelmed, as I have been with Kondrashin, Ashkenazy (on a recording with the St Petersburg Orchestra), Mravinsky with same orchestra, and indeed Toscanini, who, at a slightly swifter tempo, as implied in the Allegretto marking, holds something in reserv. Even when the lead up to the climax seems to have reached the limit of a man made fortissimo, Toscanini managed to produce even greater volumes of sound to make the composers fff an overwhelming, but still musical climax.

The second movement with a main theme in B minor is a rondo-like design, with a contrasted mid section in triple time with savage accents, intoning traces of Mahlerian irony, and brilliantly scored for brass and woodind sonorities in opposition with each other, was well contrasted, although the complex cross-rhythms in the mid section  were not always as rhythmically sharp and in sequence as they are in the historical Toscanini premiere. Similarly, the third movement went quite well, although Bychkov’s slowing down for the chorale and recitative long notes initially in violins allowed the music to drag. Again it is Toscanini who completely understood the structure and inner structure here with never a hint of sagging. And no other trumpeter can come close to the NBC’s principal trumpeter Harry Glantz at the movement’s climax, a parody of the opening chorale-recitative passages.

Bychkov seemed in much better form for the finale. After the sombre C minor is reached the Allegro proper was propelled with tremendous ostinato-like energy. The build up to the great peroration coda was most impressive, Bychkov sustaining a real symphonic pulse which never dragged or sagged. As one commentator wrote ‘the main theme of the first movement arises phoenix-like from the ashes’. The strains of triumphalism in this coda is tempered by a darker minor key  tone balefully delivered in full brass maybe looking forward to the massive battles in Kursk and Stalingrad where Hitler’s Wehrmacht was finally defeated – the beginning of the end for Hitler  but again, as at Leningrad, at tremendous   cost of human life. The Prommers gave a rapturous applause which Bychkov came out to acknowledge at least five times but refused an encore, much to my relief. What encore could follow from that massive and ambiguous coda? 

Later I played the old 1942 Toscanini Western premiere of the symphony, and was amazed that on an old radio recording I could hear so much more detail, especially in the woodwind, brass and percussion but again this might have been more to do with the acoustical restrictions of the Albert Hall. I would like to hear Bychkov in this work in, say, the Concertgebouw Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Himself a native of St Petersburg he has an obvious empathy with this fine symphony, once denounced by Western critics as ‘banal film music’.  

Geoff Diggines

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