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).

LSO play Ravel and Mussorgsky at the Barbican review ***

mussorgsky_repin

London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Barbican Hall, 3rd June 2018

  • Ravel – Rapsodie Espagnole
  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 3
  • Mussorgsky arranged Ravel – Pictures at an Exhibition

It has been a few years since I have heard Pictures at an Exhibition live, and I have thoroughly enjoyed Mr Noseda’s way with Shostakovich and Beethoven recently, so I reasoned now was the time to reacquaint myself. Moreover Mr Bronfman’s account of the PC 4 last year, admittedly under the exacting eye and ear of Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian RSO, was pleasurable enough if not earth-shattering (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review *****). And I thought it right to risk another chapter in my ongoing love/hate relationship with Ravel.

The Rapsodie espagnole is a pastiche, of sorts, of Spanish music, in contrast to the rather more rooted offerings of the likes of de Falla, Albeniz and Granados, though Ravel is not the only French composer to have been seduced by all that sultry dance. Indeed when this was composed, in 1907, Maurice was immersed in all things Iberian what with his opera L’heure espagnole and the songs of the Vocalise-Etude. And his particular favourite was that familiar habanera rhythm – which turned into, amongst other things, the cha cha cha we now today. Mind you his mum was Spanish and he was born just over the border in the Pyrenees so it was in the genes/memes.

This was Ravel’s breakthrough orchestra piece and actually pretty much his only full force work that didn’t start in another form or from the piano. Whilst it isn’t based on any specific Spanish melodies there is no doubting where you are. Ravel, of course, was the master of musical and emotional coloration. Yet he doesn’t always surprise. When he does, for me mainly in the chamber, piano and piano concerto works, he can dazzle. When he doesn’t, often as not for me in the vocal works, he can be just a bit too diddly to no purpose. Not as diddly as Debussy who mostly really tries my patience, but still a triumph of style over substance.

Overall, given the material, this was reasonably enjoyable though I wouldn’t seek it out. There is a distinct descending four note ostinato motif that recurs through three of the four sections, with the Habanera being the exception. This helps it all hang together. The LSO was on top of the score, of course, but Mr Noseda’s reading felt a little forced, but not unpleasantly so, until the final Feria where the band cut loose.

This spilled over into the Beethoven where the quiet string theme that opens the C minor concerto shuffled into, rather than glided into, the room to set up the extended orchestral intro of the Allegro. Last time round in Beethoven I felt Mr Bronfman’s precise, delicate playing meant he got a bit bullied by the orchestra. I feared a repeat. As it turned out he was given enough room to breathe and the LSO, especially in the woodwind and lower strings, was on top form, with the Largo the standout. I have heard more convincing overall interpretations, and a bit more whoosh in the Rondo, but this was satisfying enough.

Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain, Vicious, Bonham, Curtis, Johnson, Buckley (x2), Cooke, Gaye, Coltrane, Parker, Parsons, Bolan, Tosh, Lynott, Nelson (PR). Some of my musical “heroes’ who died of unnatural causes, often with a fair bit more left to give, But if you want real rock’n’roll, nearly a century before any of these punters were doing their thing, then Modest Mussorgsky is your man. Obviously, like so many of the above, he was a f*cking idiot to waste his talent mashed up on booze, but, having chosen this course, and he did choose it seeking artistic freedom in this “bohemian life”, he got properly stuck in. Which meant he failed to complete vast swathes of work and didn’t get much beyond the piano and a bunch of songs and the completed opera Boris Godunov. He was a rubbish musician barely caring or knowing about structure or texture but boy could he capture a mood. and in BG he basically captures the essence of Russia.

Anyway there he is above in close up, in Repin’s famous portrait from 1881, which appeared in the marvellous Russia and the Arts collection at the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago. He looks a bit rough for sure. Worse still when you realise he was just 42 and died a few weeks later.

Easy to see what the colourist Ravel, as many others have done subsequently, was smitten with MM’s big ideas and couldn’t resist the temptation to smooth off the rough edges. The original piano suite of Pictures at an Exhibition was inspired by a posthumous retrospective of the work of artist Victor Hartmann, MMs mate who died aged 39. Mind you MM’s musical images, as you might expect, went way beyond whatever Hartmann envisioned, but the concept of the exhibition, with the repeated Promenade being us the viewer, holds the whole thing together and adds an ironic, detached air to the bombast. On the piano it doesn’t entirely work but in Ravel’s hands something magical emerges. Ravel used Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition of the piano original so a few changes were made but you get the feeling that MM would have been happy with the result even if he may not have known how Ravel got there.

It might all be very familiar but it the right hands, and the LSO and Gianandrea were the right hands, it can still be thrilling. Bydio, Baba-Yage and the Great Gate of Kiev didn’t disappoint. Boom. If you are a classical virgin and want to find a way into live performance there is no better way. You won’t stay there as you move on, and you may end up thinking it is all a bit daft, but the hairs on the back of your neck will still stand on end whenever you return to it.

Rock’n’roll. Sort of.