Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)
Katia & Marielle Labèque (pianos)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 16 January, 2014
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos was one of the works this prolific composer wrote in war-time exile in the USA. It’s also music in which identity and influence haven’t quite bedded down in mutual compatibility. The very first bars spray you with Gershwin jazz and Stravinsky astringency, and the slow movement, with its ghosts of the dream-world that permeates his opera Juliette, often sounds like a backing for some ripe surrealist fantasy. The finale, with its tautly sprung rhythms, gets closest to the composer’s homesick Czech identity.
There isn’t much in the way of dialogue between the two soloists, and it’s their glossy washes of sound and flattering decorative commentaries that justify the use of two pianos, with contrast rather than argument defining their relationship with the orchestra. Katia and Marielle Labèque’s playing gave the hybrid music a hair-tossing glamour in keeping with the arresting vision of the sisters’ gowns – scarlet for Katia, black for Marielle, and I did wonder about the physics of the pivotal action between three-inch high-heels and sustaining pedals. Sometimes the rhythms and dissonances didn’t exactly jump off the page, but the double-act flowed gracefully through the Adagio’s discursive ruminations, with Marielle’s husband, Semyon Bychkov, conjuring an ear-catching, sepulchral sound from the BBCSO’s wind section in its extended, lugubrious episode.
It was worlds away from the epic tragedy and triumph of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, written two years earlier in 1941, and a work for which Bychkov, born in that city, has an obvious affinity. He exposed Shostakovich’s acute self-awareness to a painful degree, and, for a conductor renowned for the security of his long reach in Wagner, he delivered all this huge work’s separate elements with a thrilling cogency. He encouraged the more schematic first three movements to unravel into something more emotionally and psychologically ambiguous and then to justify their resolution in his overwhelmingly humane direction of the finale. The famous march of the first movement presented its blank, fascist face with a fine, detached insouciance, the side-drum accompaniment emerging like a rictus grin and the march’s inexorable progress finally tipping into brutal hysteria with an acutely realised sense of abandon. The BBCSO complemented Bychkov’s compelling conducting with some vividly characterised solos, notably so from bassoon and contrabassoon, and a fabulously dark spread of sound from the strings. Their pizzicato playing confirmed the undertow of dread that seeped into the scherzo, and the so-called “homeland’s vistas” of the harrowing Adagio offered nothing by way of comfort. But it was Bychkov’s patient revealing of cards that paid off so triumphantly in the bloodied but unbowed finale.