Rattle returns to the LSO with a blistering Shostakovich Fourth at the Barbican

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Shostakovich: Isabelle Faust (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 29.2.2024. (JR)

Sir Simon Rattle conducts violinist Isabelle Faust and the LSO © Mark Allan

Brahms – Violin Concerto, Op.77
Shostakovich – Symphony No.4, Op.43

A rather odd pairing, this. We started with Brahms’s Violin Concerto, presumably to ensure a full house though the presence of Sir Simon should have guaranteed that in any event. It made for a restful start to what turned out to be a shattering concert. Many will have heard the concerto often and I have to say I thought Isabelle Faust brought nothing particularly special to the table. Yes, it was certainly beautifully played, flawless technique overcoming the work’s significant technical demands, almost perfect intonation, extreme lyricism but I could not discern any particular reading or interpretation other than beauty of phrasing and tone. Faust could not prevent the Adagio sounding dull and there was a lack of power in the outer movements. Rattle whipped up the orchestral sections to provide some interest and heft, his architectural handling of the whole work was convincing. The cadenza provided a big surprise. Brahms, not considering himself expert enough on the violin to compose one himself, left it to the soloist to do the honours and provide their own solo cadenza; Joseph Joachim, the dedicatee of the work, composed one and that is one traditionally heard. Numerous composers have written cadenzas for this concerto – there are more than twenty of them!  Faust daringly chose the Busoni cadenza, its unusual bold timpani interjections sounding a mite displaced.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra © Mark Allan

The second part of the concert blew the audience away. By way of background, which for this work you have to know: Shostakovich, in 1935, was riding the crest of a wave. His opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was widely acclaimed in Moscow and Leningrad and received more than 100 performances; and he started writing his Fourth Symphony. Disaster struck when Stalin chose to attend a performance of the opera and issued (indirectly) a crude but devastating attack on the music in Pravda, calling it ‘muddled’. Shostakovich finished the symphony but the Leningrad Philharmonic’s administration advised that the first performance be postponed – and it turned out to be a 25-year postponement (the first performance was under Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic in 1961), long after Stalin was dead. Meanwhile Shostakovich composed his popular and less angry Fifth Symphony, a ‘response to fair criticism’ was his tongue-in-cheek comment. That symphony, premièred in 1937, was a triumphal success.

Shostakovich’s menacing Fourth Symphony is not quite a masterpiece; it is too discombobulated for that and some nods to other composers whom Shostakovich admired, such as Mahler. But it is a great work, a piece of musical history, with many striking passages and themes. I was humming them for hours after the concert.

Shostakovich employs huge forces, there were too many on the crowded Barbican stage to count, but the list of the orchestra on stage numbered 5 trumpets, 6 clarinets, 4 flutes, and 9 percussionists including the two timpanists. Rattle played the symphony for all it was worth, no holding back on volume at any stage; rightly so, this work needs to be deafening. On the very day that Vladimir Putin threatened to employ nuclear weapons if his country were invaded or if the West sent troops to Ukraine, this could be viewed as a message back to those currently in power in Russia. The opening of the symphony was particularly brutal.

The rapport between Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra remains palpable and the orchestra played with precision (the strong playing remarkable in the faster passages) and bloom. The Finale was played extremely fast, Rattle in control of not only every bar but almost every note. The climax was cataclysmic, with its menacing double basses. Then the movement died away to the chilling tinkle of the celeste: my thoughts were of Alexander Navalny traipsing over frozen Arctic wasteland before meeting his end (as I write this he is being buried in Moscow). It was a poignant concert, though the orchestra management could not have known that when the concert was planned.

At the end, the audience remained silent for quite a while (Sir Simon transfixed) before erupting into rapturous applause for both orchestra (leader, principal bassoon and cor anglais especially) and for Sir Simon, who looked thrilled at the response. A standing ovation soon followed and was fully deserved. A concert that will live long in the memory for those who were privileged to hear it.

The performance was filmed live for medici.tv and Mezzo.

John Rhodes

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