Shostakovich from the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy review ****

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Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), James Ehnes (violin)

Royal Festival Hall, 29th April 2018

Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, Op.77
  • Symphony no. 4 in C minor, Op.43

Apparently Vladimir Ashkenazy was at the premiere of the Fourth Symphony. In 1961, in Moscow, 25 years after it was written, DSCH having withdrawn it after Stalin metaphorically beat up him and his music in Pravda. How amazing is that. 57 years after that premiere a still sprightly 80 year old Mr Ashkenazy bounded up to the podium and delivered as committed a performance of the Fourth Symphony as you are likely to hear. Ably assisted by the massed forces of the Philharmonia, of which he is Conductor Laureate, let loose on a piece of the repertoire which is outside their normal C19 staples.

For those they don’y know it the Fourth is a curious beast. It contains plenty of recognisable DSCH tropes across its hour and a bit and its three “movements”, and is more Mahlerian in concept and execution, than the later symphonies. Indeed it shares the same key, C minor as the Resurrection, and a second movement akin to that symphony’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn third movement scherzo. Alas, if you were a Russian apparatchik in the 1930s it was bereft of the required redemptive triumphalism that Mahler delivered in his final movement. Mahler’s third was also an inspiration though it takes a knowing conductor to locate it.

It has a lot of bits and pieces, showing a resemblance to the modernism of DSCH’s early works, which he was supposed to have left behind. Idea after idea is introduced then discarded. Fun, but a little wearing, especially when compared to the long arcs of narrative in the later symphonies. You can see where all those polystylist Russian composers that followed DSCH, like Alfred Schnittke, got their ideas from. The shorter central movement is easier to read, with its nagging four note motif, but the opening fastish, and the closing slow/fast movement with its two massive codas are, to coin a phrase, all over the shop. DSCH is showing off, but it does get you to wondering where he might have gone if he hadn’t had to tread the line between undermining, and seeking the approval of, the capricious regime. Not saying that old Joe was good for Dmitry just that the ugly reality made him do more with less (ideas not instruments).

I have the well regarded recording by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra which doesn’t dilly-dally in either of the outer two movements which allows the ear, and brain, to discern a sonata-like structure amidst all the madcap invention. I don’t think Mr Ashkenazy was quite as bold with his tempi, so I don’t think it hung together quite as well as this recording, but this was still a performance to intrigue rather than confuse. Anyway you look at it though, these outer movements, clocking in just under half an hour each are going to have intervals of misunderstanding. Best then to admire the playing of the ton, literally, of members of the PO on stage, especially the woodwind, a match for the LPO in the DSCH symphonies, though the LPO has the benefit of Vladimir Jurowski’s increasingly brilliant readings.

So not the place to start if you don’t “get” Shostakovich. The popular First Violin Concerto certainly is though, especially with a soloist as assured as James Ehnes. The last time I heard Mr Ehnes was in a magical Messaien Quartet, alongside the Shostakovich Second Piano Trio at SJSS (Quatuor pour la fin du temps at St John’s Smith Square review *****). Mr Ehnes is a tall fellow, think Elrond to Mr Ashkenazy’s Bilbo Baggins, and it takes a seeming age for his bow to move across the strings given his very upright style. Looks can be deceiving though, as we all know, for, when Shostakovich asks the soloist to deliver in the lengthy cadenza between the third movement Passacaglia and Burlesca finale, he answered with aplomb. He was similarly convincing in the Passacaglia itself, one of DSCH’s genuinely “grand” inventions with its references to the Leningrad Symphony and the fate motif from Beethoven’s Fifth.

As with the Fourth Symphony there was a hiatus between the work’s completion in 1948 and first performance in 1955 (after Stalin’s death in 1953), by its dedicatee David Oistrakh with the Leningrad Philharmonic, a consequence of the Zhdanov decree. The piece is apparently Hamletian in scope, can’t see it myself, as well as symphonic in form, with a gentle, Elgarian Nocturne, preceding a “possessed” Scherzo (with the classic autobiographical DSCH motif, so common in later works, snuck in for the firs time), the aforementioned Passacaglia and the pumped up finale with glimpses of material from the other movements, including the folky dance of the Scherzo. Once again the PO woodwind shone.

So a fine evening presided over by a genuine grade A maestro. I am a big fan of Mr Ashkenazy piano playing, especially in Beethoven and Chopin, and even when it goes a bit off-piste. Unfortunately I never saw him play the piano live. I don’t suppose I ever will. Meanwhile this was more than adequate compensation.

 

Quatuor pour la fin du temps at St John’s Smith Square review *****

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Alban Gerhardt cello, James Ehnes violin, Jean Johnson clarinet, Steven Osborne piano

St John’s Smith Square, 14th November

  • Shostakovich – Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67,
  • Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

I don’t suppose Olivier Messiaen had any idea, when he composed his chamber masterpiece in such harrowing circumstances in 1941, just how “popular’ it would become. A packed St John’s Smith Square waited expectantly (I know, I know, it’s hardly Glastonbury on Saturday night but this is as excited as us classical buffs can get).

First up though Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2 which I think should get more regular airings. Like Messiaen’s Quartet, this was written during WWII, completed in 1944 and dedicated to DSCH’s friend Ivan Sollertinsky. DSCH saw it as a tribute both to the victims of the Holocaust and to those who died at Stalin’s behest. Four movements, a canonic first, a sardonic scherzo, a brooding Largo in the form of a Passacaglia which then returns in the finale after some dancier lines based on Jewish folk tunes. So all the usual DSCH material but here used with economy and with some striking dissonances that gets the point across. I have to say regular partners Alban Gerhardt (who is a Shostakovich whizz) and Steven Osborne really gelled with James Ehnes’s violin to give a properly dynamic and scary performance.

Messiaen was captured in 1940 with two friends, cellist Etienne Pasquier and clarinettist Henri Akoka, and eventually shipped off to Stalag VIII-A in Silesia. They met violinist Jean La Boulaire in this labour camp and Messiaen composed a trio for the three musicians. Cold and hunger left OM hallucinating and the devout Catholic took to writing another 7 movements to accompany this trio which became the Intermede for the Quartet. The whole is prefaced from the Revelation 10 which describes the descent of an angel. The first performance outside in the camp, in the middle of winter, on rickety instruments, must have been indescribably intense. Hard to repeat that but listening to this is always overwhelming wherever you sit on the devotional scale.

The first movement Liturgie de Cristal sees the piano and cello moving in isorhythm (don’t ask) with the clarinet and violin tweeting the bird song over the top. The following Vocalise is punctuated by a beautiful chanting theme. The third movement is the Abime des oiseaux, birds singing again, for solo clarinet with a painfully slow tempo at times. Then, after the Intermede, comes the extraordinarily beautiful meditation Louange a L’Eternite de Jesus for cello and piano. The Danse de la ureur which breaks the spell is exactly that though this could have been even angrier. The Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel harks back to the structure of the second movement before the final movement which echoes the fourth movement but now for violin and piano. The fade at the end is almost unbearable. Messiaen wanted to capture the infinite and pretty much succeeds. If you want to know the definition of “rapture” listen to this.

Jean Johnson is Steven Osborne’s wife so they knew what they were at. James Ehnes fitted into the two duos like a glove. A terrific evening. I suspect the four of them will give this another go somewhere.

If you have never heard the Quartet for the End of Time you must. If you think all modern classic music is unlistenable this will prove you wrong (though it isn’t actually that challenging anyway though it is a bit bonkers at times). If you don’t have an ounce of religious fervour don’t worry. This is simply, for the most part, one of the most beautifully moving pieces of music ever composed.

All you need is love as another quartet intoned.