Further BBC National Orchestra of Wales 2017 Commemorations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich, Mussorgsky, Liszt, Scriabin: Ashley Riches (bass), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Robert Spano (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 20.10.2017. (PCG)

Shostakovich – October, Op.131
Mussorgsky – (orch. Shostakovich) Songs and Dances of Death
Mussorgsky – (orch. Stravinsky) Song of the Flea
Liszt – Mazeppa
Scriabin – Symphony No.4 “Poem of Ecstasy

Shostakovich wrote his symphonic poem October in 1967 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It therefore made an entirely appropriate piece to open this concert given as part of the BBC’s centenary commemorations of the event. Or did it? At this late stage in his career, the composer was regarded as the “grand old man” of Soviet music. He had finally joined the Communist Party at the beginning of the decade, and his days of opprobrium during the Stalinist era were long forgotten. But his thirteenth symphony Babi Yar had fallen foul of the authorities five years earlier, and the sense of rejoicing that might have been expected in such a patriotic piece seemed to be in rather short supply. The opening has a sombre cast. After a reminiscence of the drum-taps from the Eleventh Symphony (itself based on the programme of the failed 1905 Revolution) when the music becomes more upbeat, the feeling is of dogged agitation rather than celebration. Semi-quotations from the Fifth Symphony (the composer’s “response to just criticism”) were also vicious, and not at all joyful; Pomp and Circumstance this music is decidedly not. Although the decibel count is high, the more thoughtful among the Soviet authorities might have realised the apparent sub-text and smelt a rat. Clearly, if they did, they decided to put a brave face on the matter; but the peculiarly ambiguous nature of the writing makes October rather more than the patriotic potboiler as which it is sometimes dismissed. It remains a rarity, and one well worth hearing.

Ashley Riches, a member of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, here made what appears to have been his first venture into the field of Russian song with both the greatest Russian song cycle of the nineteenth century and Mussorgsky’s best-known song. Although his voice is a bass-baritone rather than the more usual Russian bass, he showed no difficulties with the lower tessitura and his Russian diction appeared to be perfect. His depiction of “Field Marshal Death” in the final song of the Songs and Dances of Death was properly chilling. His assumption of the role of Mephistopheles in the Russian translation of Goethe had sinister undertones to offset the surface jocularity. Much of this, however, must unfortunately have passed the audience by, since no translations were offered in the programme (and only some radio listeners will have had access to them either). I fully appreciate the desire of artists (and the BBC) to deliver music in its native language, but the sheer intensity of the texts set by Mussorgsky surely demand a greater degree of comprehension for their full appreciation. Is this perhaps a case for the BBC to employ — and commission if necessary — suitable translations? The dividends for listeners would be considerable.

Incidentally, the orchestration of the Song of the Flea by Stravinsky was new to me, and Daniel Jaffé’s programme notes made no reference to the date at which it was made. It sounded generally rather conventional, apart from a startling interjection of two bowed notes into the pizzicato phrases on the violins. An article on this site by Lewis Foreman yields the information that the arrangement was made in 1909 (before Stravinsky had established an international reputation) and that it has been recorded at least once (by Martti Talvela). Enen though, the majority of recordings of the song with orchestra employ the version made by Eugene Goossens, as did Boris Christoff on the CD version recommended in the programme. Stravinsky’s treatment is an interesting novelty.

I am afraid that I cannot warm to Liszt’s Mazeppa, which seems to me to be one of the weakest of his symphonic poems. The extended treatment of Mazeppa’s ride (bound naked to the back of his horse) over the Russian steppe, and the buoyant upbeat conclusion as he is chosen by the Cossacks to be their leader, make pretty thin gruel musically by comparison with Prometheus, Heroïde funebre or Les Préludes, for example. The general repetitiveness of the music is not assisted by Liszt’s persistent habit of repeating extended passages note-for-note transposed to a higher key, which here lead to the uneasy feeling that his horse drops dead from exhaustion not once but twice. The still centre of the work is too brief by comparison to offset the sense of meaningless activity which surrounds it. Even such as ardent Wagnerite as George Bernard Shaw described it in 1876 (at its first English performance) as “false art, due to the conception not of a true musician but of a charlatan”. Nonetheless it was excellently and responsively played.

The final item of this programme, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, proved on the other hand to be a real revelation. My first encounter with the work many years ago came from an old Melodiya LP. That performance was conducted by Svetlanov; the important part from the trumpet was delivered by a vibrato-laden Russian player with a scything tone that would have ripped through calico at a hundred paces. Subsequent encounters with the score left me with the impression of an over-extended work where the hot-house atmosphere became almost stifling and left a feeling of overkill. And I suspect that a similar response may well have been invoked in home listeners hearing the live relay of this concert. But what actually came over in the hall was quite different, overwhelming in a manner that for once seemed to justify Scriabin’s opinion of himself as the destined saviour of mankind. The manful trumpet playing of Philippe Schartz, well-integrated into the texture but delivered with a sense of assurance that completely obviated the innate difficulty of the frequently stratospheric writing, was just one element in this. Even more remarkable was the sense of light and shade which Robert Spano evoked, ranging from quietly weaving contrapuntal lines to explosions of power which in the resonant acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall were shattering in their impact. I came away from this performance with a real sense of new discovery in a work I thought I knew tolerably well. And the audience, a large one for an afternoon concert, seemed to think so too; it is occasional and unexpected events like this which make attendance at live performances so rewarding.

As I have noted, I rather doubt that the full impact of this rendition of Scriabin’s score will have proved possible to capture over the microphones of the broadcast engineers; but the broadcast nevertheless remains available to listeners over the next thirty days through the medium of the BBC iPlayer. And, as so often in these BBC broadcasts, the enterprising nature of the programming will repay repeated listening.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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