Noseda and the LSO at the Barbican review ****

London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Roman Simovic (violin)

Barbican Hall, 9th February 2020

  • Prokofiev – Symphony No 1 in D major Op 25 “Classical”
  • Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No 1 Op 19
  • Mussorgsky arr Rimsky-Korsakov – Prelude to “Khovanshchina”
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 9 in E flat major Op 70

The latest all Russian instalment in the Shostakovich symphony cycle from Principal Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO. Late to the party the Tourist has tuned in to Nos 4, 8 and 6 and mightily persuasive they were too. I confess I am not sure where we are up to or what is left to go, or, obviously, when this might happen. Main concern at the moment is that everyone in both venue and orchestra is safe and that all is intact for when performance returns.

Let’s face it, old Dmitry and his music is not the jolliest. Most obviously the predecessor to this. The Eighth, from 1943 with the Battle of Stalingrad still raw, was written in the face of, and is a testament to, the horror of war. It sounds like it. In 1945, war over, the smart money then was on DSCH coming up with some sort of triumphal victory ode, albeit laced with his characteristic torments, which recognised the immense sacrifice of the Soviet nation and people. And not just to keep the Party bosses onside. He even started work on a grand choral symphony, (this is number 9 after all), but abandoned this and instead came up with the Ninth, a far from heroic, five movement, parodic, tragi-comedy. He claimed it was light touch but, unsurprisingly, the censors baulked and it was added to the Sixth and Eighth, (and the by now forgotten Fourth), as proscribed. “formalist” works.

The opening Allegro kicks off with a light, Haydnesque theme, before a comic polka second theme exposition which is, uniquely for DSCH, repeated, then an angry development, before the polka theme, now darker, returns. There is nothing delightful about the shuffling waltz which follows nor the final three movements, a short-lived shrieking scherzo, a bassoon led Largo which ends in a grotesque march and a sarcastic race-to-the-finish victory parade. Their unbroken structure reflects that of the Eighth, but the impression is more like the stunted circus of the Sixth. It is even shorter clocking in at under half an hour. So much for Stalin and the boys expectation of a rival to Beethoven’s Choral.

Still, even with all of the DSCH expected, and unexpected tics, there is something of the Classical about the Ninth, which makes its pairing with Prokofiev’s own “Classical” symphony satisfying. Both are pretending to toe the line by imitating the acceptable, lightly-scored, face of the musical past. But both are also using this to convey some other meaning. Or are they? After all, DSCH’s and SP’s musical satire, and the bombastic paeans to Soviet greatness by their compliant, less talented, and now forgotten, peers in the Composers’ Union, are surely just notes on a page. Any interpretation, beyond that of the performers, is imposed upon the notes by composer, commentator and audience. What if DSCH was serious when he said about the Ninth “a transparent, pellucid, and bright mood predominates”.

The young Prokofiev said he set out to ape Mozart in his First Symphony. But foreshadowing the neo-classicism of Stravinsky and others, especially with plenty of trademark, spikey dissonances was still a provocative thing to do in some ways in the year of the Revolution. Even so, and accepting that its pure sonata form is more Haydn than Mozart, the Classical is a gem which I, and plenty of others, will never tire of hearing.

I hope to be able to say the same thing about his First Violin Concerto in time. I don’t have a recording of this, also composed in 1917, or its sister from 1935. I probably should. It has some damned fine tunes, inspired by his trip to the great outdoors at that time, before he skipped to the US, as well as epiphany of seeing the Ballet Russes in 1914. It didn’t get performed until 1923 by which time his Puck-ish, musical bad-boy reputation had cemented, so it’s lyricism and easy melodies, especially in the opening movement marked Andantino, are a bit of a surprise. On the other hand with the vibrant scherzo, packed full of extended technique for the soloist, and the tick-tock repetition of the orchestra behind the solo cantabile line in the finale, we are back on a surer SP footing. It is still though an easy listen.

Especially when the soloist, Roman Simovic, and the orchestra are so friendly. For Mr Simovic is their leader and, judging by their appreciation, as well as ours, after the performance, he is very well-liked. Which I think extends to Mr Noseda as well. He doesn’t push either music or orchestra, so that what we get is interpretations of energy and expression without too much softening of the sharp edges which characterise both of these C20 Russian giants. I was a little less persuaded by the Prelude to Khovanshchina but whether this is because even Rimsky-Korsakov couldn’t conjure coherent colour from the, admittedly, bold ideas of the, by then, permanently sh*t-faced Mussorgsky, I know not. I see Shostakovich also offered an arrangement (and Stravinsky and Ravel) but I doubt even this would persuade. I have dipped into that Boris Godunov during lock-down from my already short short-list of operas which might do it for me. It doesn’t.

Mr Noseda certainly knows which of the LSO many fine buttons, especially the woodwind girls and boys, to press with unmannered and intelligible phrasing in the symphonies and unintrusive back-seat driving in the concerto. He may not have much in the way of “natural rhythm” on the podium, think drunk uncle/wedding/Guns N’Roses, but musically he is proving, in this intense repertoire at least, to be best man (see what I did there).

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