Switzerland Lucerne Festival Britten, Shostakovich: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra), Sir Simon Rattle (conductor) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Lucerne (KKL) 1.9.2015 (JR)
Britten: Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4
Usually, choice of music in a programme dictates attendance but in the case of a concert given by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, it does not really seem to matter. Out came de rigueur the Japanese, the ex-pat Germans, musical visitors from abroad and of course the curious locals: it was a sell-out. I would wager a guess, however, that very few of the audience knew (or had even heard of) the Britten piece, nor heard Shostakovich’s Fourth symphony before. So full marks must go to Rattle for some adventurous but, for many I suspect, rather challenging uncompromising programming.
When Britten was 10 he was taken to a concert which included a piece by Frank Bridge entitled “The Sea”, conducted by the composer himself. Britten had already started composing – from the age of five! Three years later Britten met Bridge who spotted the prodigy’s eminent talents and became his personal tutor (Britten was his only student). Years later, in 1937, he wanted to write a piece in his mentor’s honour and took a theme from a string work by Bridge and composed variations for string orchestra. The remarkably mature work brought Britten to international attention.
It’s not an easy piece to unravel: the theme is played in the opening section, but done so rather obtusely, and it is only at the end of the piece that it can be heard clearly. That makes you want to listen to the piece again and follow the variations, which reflect Bridge’s personality (his wit, energy, charm and so on). The variations are often charming with some wondrous sound effects; there are nods to Mahler, Ravel, Rossini and Stravinsky. One can also detect why Britten took a shine to Shostakovich: they eventually became very close friends. The impressive strings of the Berliners attacked the work with aplomb and evident enjoyment.
Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony requires knowledge of some historical background. In 1936 (so one year before Britten wrote his variations) Pravda published an anonymous editorial accusing Shostakovich of writing “nervous, convulsive and spasmodic music”. The specific target of this attack was the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District now regarded, of course, as a adventurous masterpiece. By the time of this attack, Shostakovich had already composed most of his Fourth Symphony, but although Otto Klemperer, for one, was deeply impressed when they heard Shostakovich play it at home for some friends, Shostakovich chose – probably wisely – to put the score away and write a more “acceptable” symphony, his reply to criticism, which was to become the Fifth. The Fourth Symphony only reappeared some 25 years later, in 1961, after Stalin’s death.
The Fourth Symphony is a contender for Shostakovich’s most original and profound works (though some find it a hotchpotch of ideas). It is fantastic in every sense, two huge almost Mahlerian movements with a short witty intermezzo. Rattle conveyed the modernity of the work and the orchestra – in all their splendid sections – showed us why it really can still be considered the best in the world. In the opening movement a Russian orchestra would have given us more edge, more bite, more rawness but those are not the qualities of the Berlin sound which are sheen, blend and richness. If the audience had been perplexed by the Britten, the Shostakovich gave them no comfort. This is uncompromising music with occasional visions of humour, such as Mahlerian cuckoos, ticking clocks but also frenzied strings and blocks of apocalyptic volume (at one point Shostakovich calls for quintuple forte). The excellent principal bassoon could frequently be seen inserting his ear plugs.
The final movement had this luxury orchestra displaying all their virtuosity before they reached the great final climax with both timpanists hammering out their dotted rhythms and with brass screaming in agony, before the work literally dies away to the eerie tinkle of the celesta.
The audience was breathless. Then the cheering started.