Symphony No.9 in E-flat, Op.70
Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra (with harp and piano)
Symphony No.6 in E-flat minor, Op.111
Martin Fröst (clarinet)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 17 October, 2018
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Two post-war Russian Symphonies that confounded Soviet expectations in which the composers get close to stylistic role-reversal – both, you suspect, glancing covetously at the freedoms enjoyed by an American Clarinet Concerto that combines metropolitan glamour and heart-easing candour.
With its five short movements, the last three of which form a mini-suite and opening with a Classical creation complete with exposition repeat, it must have seemed that Shostakovich in Symphony No.9 was positively courting Soviet disapproval of perceived reactionary ‘formalism’, especially since he composer had steered away from supplying a mighty choral Ninth to celebrate the end of the war and the glory of the Soviet ideal. As you might expect from a conductor for whom the devil is in the detail, Sakari Oramo was merciless in his exposing this allegedly light work’s Haydnesque invention. There were times in the opening movement when the BBCSO’s big sound and abundance of spiky solos came across like a précis of one of the composer’s larger-scale canvases, such as the precocious First Symphony. As with Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss seeking a safe space in Mozart, you wonder if Shostakovich is heading down a similar route, scattering coded message in the process, and Oramo let his orchestra off the leash in some brilliantly characterised playing, so that each theme and gesture told its own story. From snide piccolo and platitudinous trombones in the first movement to a slow-section bassoon solo of inconsolable desolation, Shostakovich presents a playground in which you are never sure who or what is being concealed or revealed, with Oramo a master of mercurial appraisal.
Martin Fröst is a scorcher of a performer, all the more visceral for not seeming contrived, and he was on top form in Aaron Copland’s 1947 Clarinet Concerto, which slides happily from prairie to Benny Goodman jazz-club (it was written for him) via a preposterously virtuoso cadenza. Fröst’s playing is so engaged and expressive that you can’t tell where, as it were, he stops and the clarinet starts. The serene opening section had Fröst leaning into the spread of string mist with disarming intimacy that became even closer in noodling passages with Elizabeth Burley’s stylish piano, the strings’ fade into the cadenza a tiny glimpse of heaven, then the solo spot sizzling with things you didn’t know a clarinet could do, with yet more heat billowing out of the fast section’s snake-hipped syncopations. Astounding, and his encore – Fröst’s viola-playing brother Göran’s arrangement of a Klezmer dance, ‘Let’s be happy’, preceded by a brief improvisation on the opening of The Rite of Spring.
Just before the start of the second half, Sakari Oramo received this year’s international award from CoScan, the Confederation of Scandinavian Societies (the ceremony bizarrely denied to Radio 3 listeners – Ed.), and with that achievement under his belt he then led us into the haunted shadows of Prokofiev 6.
The composer was used to hiding behind his brilliance and confidence, but in this work – like another war-generated Sixth Symphony, by Vaughan Williams – he doesn’t dissemble. The first movement’s pervasive rhythm gives the illusion of momentum but in fact is inert, at best languidly chasing its own tail; there is tension in the music, but it is mainly due to frustration. As in the Shostakovich, Oramo was consistently adept at draping the music with identifiable, if bleak, personality, and he shaped the great Largo to make the Amfortas quotes from Wagner’s Parsifal an inevitable expression of anguish. Conductor and orchestra picked their way through this remarkable work with an objective tenderness that was infinitely more moving than grandstanding emotionalism, Oramo and the BBCSO leaving in no doubt how well they complement each other.