United Kingdom Beethoven and Shostakovich: Simon Trpčeski (piano), Vitalij Kowaljow (bass), London Symphony Orchestra, Tenors and Basses of the London Symphony Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Aiden Oliver) / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Barbican Centre, London, 3.4.2023. (CSa)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.5 in E-flat ‘Emperor’
Shostakovich – Symphony No.13 ‘Babi Yar’
It has been said that music cannot resist a war, but it can give us the strength to bear the unbearable – not just to accept it – but to contemplate and overcome it. In a challenging but spiritually fortifying concert which paired Beethoven at his most ebullient and Shostakovich at his most despondent, we scaled the heights of optimism and the depths of human despair.
A majestic performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 in E-flat major, ‘Emperor’, played by the supremely accomplished Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski and the deft musicians of the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda occupied the first half. Written in the early part of 1809, as Austrian forces prepared to confront Napoleon’s tyrannical armies, Beethoven had become disillusioned with his former hero and buoyantly confident that the French would be defeated. Dedicated to his patron the Archduke Rudolf, the concerto is said to have acquired its nickname only after Beethoven’s death. It is regarded as one of the ultimate expressions of the optimism of the Enlightenment, and represents Beethoven’s immutable belief that through music, the human spirit can surmount any obstacle.
The work is one of the most demanding ever composed for the piano, featuring a written cadenza of huge complexity and an almost constant range of arpeggios and flourishes. Trpčeski demonstrated his dazzling mastery of the keyboard from the first opening bars of the heroic Allegro, where the piano introduces itself almost immediately, overcoming any technical hurdles with wondrous finger work, perfect dynamics and richly expressive phrasing. He also displayed a rare rapport with his audience, pausing courteously for approximately two minutes to accommodate a latecomer – a kindly smile on his face as if to inquire whether the young straggler was comfortably settled in – before embarking on the concerto’s ethereally beautiful hymn-like Adagio. This movement was taken quite slowly and was played with remarkable delicacy and almost unbearable tenderness. The final Rondo, a glorious and irrepressible dance of defiance, triggered a standing ovation from the capacity audience. Demands for more were answered with an encore, a limpid account of the Menuetto from Piano Sonata No.18 in E-flat major, Op.31, which Trpčeski prayed would ‘teach human beings how to provide peace in the world’.
A comparatively rare performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.13, ‘Babi Yar’, dominated the concert’s second half. First performed in 1962 to commemorate the mass slaughter of 34,000 Ukrainian Jewish men, women and children over two days in September 1941 in a ravine just outside Kiev. Their killers were Nazi Einsatzgruppen C soldiers assisted by Ukrainian collaborators. The timing of this performance served as a harrowing reminder of the bloody war of attrition currently being waged in Ukraine and the unspeakable suffering of its people. The symphony’s title refers to the place where the murders took place, and the famous Yevgeny Yevtushenko poem of that name condemning widespread antisemitism in Russia. Shostakovich set the poem in the symphony’s first movement, while four other Yevtushenko poems (Humour, In the Store, Fears, and A Career) are set in the remaining further four movements. The poems are sung by a soloist accompanied by a large male choir.
In this instance the tenors and basses of the London Symphony Chorus and the London Philharmonic Choir joined with the mighty Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow to give an interpretation of astonishingly dramatic power. Noseda’s cogent reading of Shostakovich’s Herculean score brilliantly contrasted moments of fierce intensity with passages of brooding menace and biting, sardonic humour. His masterful control achieved a critical balance between the soloist, a 76-strong chorus and an orchestra of 93 players. No one listening to such a vivid literary and musical depiction of the horrors of Babi Yar could fail to reflect on its pertinence to events in Ukraine at this moment. It is an irony of history, and one which Yevteshenko would surely have appreciated, that Ukraine’s diminutive President Volodymyr Zelensky is not only Jewish but a former comedian. While he is feted as a hero in the West, the International Criminal Court in the Hague seeks the arrest of Russia’s Vladimir Putin for war crimes. Along with Trpčeski, we all believe in the remedial power of music and pray that it will bring peace. But we shouldn’t hold our breath. As Yevteshenko bitterly observed: ‘Justice is like a train which is nearly always late.’