Stravinskys youthful, Rimsky-Korsakov-influenced Scherzo fantastique was given a darker-hued reading than Sinaisky conducted with the London Philharmonic a month or so back, but then the main work was Scheherazade a very different kettle of fish to Shostakovichs Fourth Symphony.
Stravinskys scintillating orchestration was typified by the three harps and in profile it was a delight to see each harpist through the strings of the instruments do their filigree passage work. In one of those odd, serendipitous conjunctions it was the second work I had heard in three days with an oblique reference to bees. Following Arvo Pärts If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper under Gavin Bryars two nights earlier, I was amused to read that Stravinsky had been inspired by bees, although he later eschewed any suggestion of a programme. All we needed was a performance of Vaughan Williamss incidental music for Aristophaness The Wasps, and a certain lollipop by Rimsky-Korsakov, and we could have had a veritable hive of music-making!
As it was we then had the low rumblings of Jean-Yves Thibaudets left-hand patterns that ape the growling basses at the start of Ravels 1929/1930 Concerto for piano left-hand. What followed was a vivid characterisation of this brilliant concerto, with a pleasing depth and certain rawness that I would not normally associate with Thibaudet. Without the trappings of a creation by Vivienne Westwood or the like he appeared in a simple grey suit and open-necked shirt and focused solely on Ravels genius, larger-than-life perhaps, but that all made one recognise a powerful facet of the composers make-up as opposed to his more usual effete and refined sheen.
After the interval Saraste turned to Shostakovichs Fourth Symphony. I realised that my early mental calculation that the Soviet composer only really got into his symphonic style with his Fourth Symphony was wrong it is the Fifth that really sees his musical fingerprints to the forefront. The Fourth not heard for 25 years after the Stalin versus Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk debacle is definitely Shostakovichs most Mahlerian creation, different sorts of music not so much juxtaposed but rammed together marches, fugues, aching solo lines and the final thundering climax, ebbing away in a minor key conclusion which is both ambiguous and forlorn a sad memory of a former.
Saraste marshalled the BBC Symphony Orchestra with military precision, playing the climaxes for all they were worth, while subtly shading the accompaniment to the quieter passages, and got some incredibly fine playing. I was intrigued that the canopy above the stage had the two back boards in a vertical position, which I assumed was to cope with the two rows of percussion (two sets of timpani with the rest of the battery behind), allowing the sound from the back to go up and be partially restrained rather than being thrust-forward forcibly. The balance was put into perspective with the following nights concert, when the glockenspiel in the London Symphony Orchestras Strauss under Haitink was much larger than life; the back two boards of the canopy having been lowered into their horizontal position again.
It was good to hear a practical instance of the Barbicans flexible canopy actually working and all credit to Sarastes fine ear for making use of those possibilities. It was a performance of this wonderful, shattering work that confirmed until I hear another Shostakovich symphony that is that the Fourth is his best
- Concert recorded for future broadcast