I recently heard a critic on Newsnight Review complaining that he was expecting John Adams to have used dissonant music for the villainous characters and more consonant music for the goodies in his latest opera Doctor Atomic, and was disappointed that he hadn't. I take the opposite view: I want to hear composers do things I would never have thought of doing myself. Both Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 and especially Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 are essays in doing the unexpected, even the apparently impossible, and somehow bringing it off.
The Prokofiev Concerto begins right at the end, with a glorious closing gesture of the kind you usually hear at the end of a symphony. Then when the piece does get going, it keeps wandering down what seems like the wrong path, only to turn up at the right destination after all. Georgian pianist Alexander Toradze put in a weighty, authoritative performance that wasn't lacking in pathos or wit at the appropriate moments. There was some real warmth in the slow movement in which Prokofiev manages the difficult trick of being deeply moving without being at all sentimental. And Toradze had his tongue firmly in his cheek for the scherzoesque finale, replete with sparkling glockenspiel and crazy brass interjections. Far from being crushed by Prokofiev's colossal machine, Toradze was in the driving seat, dominating proceedings from beginning to end.
Thierry Fischer deserves a lot of credit for keeping the sprawling beast that is Shostakovich's 'Leningrad' Symphony under tight control. I have no idea what Shostakovich is trying to do in this work, which seems to lurch between vast stretches of banality—which banality one can only assume is deliberate, given that the composer was then at the height of his compositional powers—and moments of intense violence. In the former, more than any other group, the woodwinds were on show with important flute, oboe and bassoon solos in the first movement, E flat clarinet, piccolo and bass clarinet solos parts in the second, and a section for flute chorus in the third. Fischer's approach was to allow them to be expressive, but never to linger. That would have been fatal.
The famous set-piece crescendo that replaces the development section in the first movement was also managed to perfection with Fischer continually propelling the music forward. This section does not, as used to be thought, represent the German army as they advanced on the city of Leningrad during 1941, the year of the symphony's completion. Shostakovich had already completed the first movement before the advance started. Some scholars now think it is a representation of life under Stalin’s regime, and there is certainly something of Orwell's characterization of totalitarianism about it: 'a boot stamping on a human face – forever'. However, in the performance tonight I did wonder whether the piece might also be saying something rather unpleasant and yet true about modernity in general. After the same silly little march tune has been played 10 times it is amusing, after the twentieth, when it's being blared out over and over again with the addition of a whole extra six brass players to really hammer the point home, it becomes an unbearable nightmare.
Tonight we had two imposing performances of these enigmatic Russian works (I was, unfortunately, prevented from seeing the Britten by unavoidable circumstances). Toradze dictated to the orchestra in the Prokofiev, and Fischer shaped Shostakovich's 75 minute excursus into something approaching coherence, allowing the full terror of what he is saying to become apparent.
By Marc Brooks
Photo: Alexander Toradze