Unrelenting Terror and Frenzy from Shostakovich, Jansons and the Bavarians

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Shostakovich: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor)  Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, Lucerne 20.3.2016 (JR)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad)

You really cannot fail when a world-class orchestra under one of the world’s leading maestros performs a monumental symphony in the splendid acoustic of the Lucerne concert hall (affectionately known hereabouts as the KKL). There was, thankfully, only one work on the programme, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony – the work can and should stand on its own. The orchestra now goes on tour (see below for details) and occasionally prefaces the work with Korngold’s violin concerto.

The night before, in Lucerne, the Bavarians had performed a varied “easier” programme consisting of Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (with Julian Rachlin) and Rachmaninov’s “The Bells”; I would particularly have liked to have heard the latter.

One has to remember that Shostakovich’s symphony, composed more or less in Leningrad itself, recalls Hitler’s siege of that city, which lasted for well over two years – almost unimaginable – and a quarter of the population (900,000) either starved to death or succumbed to the bitter cold – and a quarter of that number died within a mere three months. The symphony became a symbol of resistance to Nazi totalitarianism and militarism.

The players of the Leningrad Philharmonic had in fact already been evacuated during the blockade – as had Shostakovich himself – flown to relative safety to a small town on the River Volga, Kuibyshev. Shostakovich finished the composition there during his exile. So it was the Leningrad Radio Orchestra – only 14 members could be found to have survived – which had the task of cobbling together a full orchestra and performing the first performance, in Leningrad, during the siege; they were starving and certainly not the calibre of their Philharmonic counterparts. It must have been quite a feat to get all the players together and there were fears whether the woodwinds’ ravaged lungs would take the strain. The score was then microfilmed and smuggled out of Russia to the West. Toscanini performed it in 1942 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and 20 million people heard it “live”.

It is impossible to listen properly to this symphony without this background historical context – otherwise it simply sounds hollow, bombastic and eerie in turn.

However, there is another potential narrative hidden in the work and controversy surrounds it. Soviet music critic Lev Lebedinsky, a friend of the composer’s for many years, confirmed after the dawn of glasnost (“openness”) under Gorbachev that Shostakovich had, in fact, conceived the Seventh Symphony and its famous “invasion theme” before Hitler invaded Russia: so is the aggressor Hitler or might it be (or also be) Stalin, who had presided over his own atrocities since well before the war? I have read an estimate of 7.9 million Russians being murdered between 1928 and 1941, though some say the real figure is three times that. We will probably never know, the era was a terror of silence and loneliness.  Shostakovich was fearful of being removed and occasionally slept in the hallway of his apartment block, so that if fetched, he would not disturb his family.

As the symphony began, one could only marvel at the sound of this great orchestra, particularly the woodwind and strings. I have no doubt, on the strength of this performance, that this orchestra properly belongs in the handful of the world’s leading orchestras (I don’t have to name the others, do I?). Just consider (and envy) their list of principal conductors since inception (1949), Jochum (12 years), Kubelik (18 years), Colin Davis (9 years), Maazel (9 years) and now Jansons (already 13 years and contract extended, unsurprisingly, to 2021).

After the quiet beginning of the opening movement, the ominous side drum – almost inaudible at first – begins its Bolero-like rhythm (for 750 bars); you could have heard a pin drop, no-one in the audience moved a muscle. Apparently this “invasion theme” is based on Hitler’s favourite operetta, Lehar’s Die lustige Witwe and its famous aria “Da gehe ich zu Maxim” (Do YouTube it, but not in Domingo’s version). Maxim I suspect by chance is also the name of Shostakovich’s son. Some say the tune also has echoes of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” but I couldn’t detect it. Jansons paced the movement steadily bringing the movement unrelentingly to its cataclysmic climax before the terror dies away again.

The strings throughout were a wonder to listen to and behold, for they employed oodles of elbow grease. I would just highlight the very end of the first movement where they are exposed at the very top of the E string – not a stray note.

The central movements were played faultlessly, and the brass flawless in their militaristic interjection.

Jansons whipped up frenzy in the Finale which led to inevitable loud roars and a standing ovation. No encore, of course, one was left simply to ponder the horrors of history, the magnificent orchestra and the splendour of this timeless symphony. There will continue to be tyrants, and they will cause suffering; we only have to watch the News on a daily basis.

Jansons applauded the orchestra and they returned the compliment. A well-wisher in the audience gave a small bouquet to the conductor who promptly walked past a number of female players right up to the double basses and gave it to a blushing and bemused Alexandra Scott, British, and deputy principal with the orchestra since 2007.

Now the orchestra goes on tour to Milan (La Scala) and then in April takes Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony to Frankfurt (April 9th), then over the pond to Montreal (Shostakovich 7 on April 15th), Chicago (Shostakovich 7 on April 17th), Washington (April 12th -Mahler 5), New York (2 nights at Carnegie Hall, April 19th Dvorak 8, 20th Shostakovich 7), also performing at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Don’t miss if you live in the area!

John Rhodes

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