Four Last Songs Shostakovich
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65
Jane Eaglen (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund
Berglund and the LPO - 18th June
Tuesday, June 18, 2002 Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Conductors who guide rather than galvanise need orchestras to address the infinitesimal; equally, when a performance has finished as sound but is not over, especially music of import, then stocktaking silence is required before applause. Not so for Shostakovich here all-too-early clapping broke the spell of the silent bars.
The LPOs group-personality doesnt do irony; such moments as the circus-march that saunters in halfway through the second Scherzo lacked edge. Nor, quite, does it have an implacable sense of ensemble, nor the wherewithal to raise the roof. Such qualities would have benefited Shostakovichs war-meshed symphony. Ensemble was occasionally less than crisp, the percussion sloppy in the link to the fourth movement passacaglia; the most nerve-exposed passages, dressed in stomach-kicking dissonance, lacked emotional punch.
Berglunds masterly interpretation placated these reservations. He sees this music whole not sensational, over-theatrical or obvious. His charting to climaxes, placing of contours within the overall design, was unflinching. What might be termed Berglunds Sibelian approach nothing superfluous, a focus on essentials brought haunted textural sparseness and intense honesty to Shostakovichs first movement lamentation and outrage. The separating of woodwind and string lines related a keen ear for counterpoint and incident (one of the glories of his revelatory recorded Brahms cycle). The derisive piccolo and sardonic bass clarinet stood out, and the strings excelled in veiled and inward dialogue, clarified by degrees of vibrato to bring expressional shifts to the passacaglias subterranean labyrinth, a shaft of light gradually perceived; from this, optimism grows Berglund plants seeds that are organic.
As he has shown over many years conducting Sibelius, and when he breathed new life into Tchaikovsky at last years Edinburgh Festival, Berglund has a knack of exposing musics locus in Shostakovich a blend of circumstance, consciousness and musical structure: the composers chronicle and message, and musics divine right to be itself. The hope-suggesting closing bars would have hung in the air save for an ignorant punter.
Four Last Songs is high on my list of works needing a moratorium, though inclusion here was a salutary reminder of contemporaneous events octogenarian Strauss in the late forties completing his musical valediction; Shostakovich, in his thirties and living through conflict in 1943, writing his Eighth Symphony. The Strauss was uneventful, soporific despite flowing tempi, enlivened by occasional unearthing of detail not usually heard (the LPOs uningratiating horns aside); Jane Eaglen, although warming to her task, and at her best in quiet passages, was decidedly questionable in matters of intonation and tone production.
The LPOs 2001/2 season turned full-circle the Strauss unexpectedly begun it a few days after September 11. A simple question punctuates Shostakovichs coda: what next?