BBC Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin

Symphony No.99
HK Gruber
Aerial (Trumpet Concerto)
Symphony No.15

Hakan Hardenberger (trumpet)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 February, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

One of Haydn’s finest symphonies (and that’s saying something), what I would argue is Shostakovich’s greatest (if most enigmatic) achievement as a symphonist, and a welcome chance to re-visit a memorable BBC Proms’ commission.

Before the concert, Rob Cowan hosted a lively and informative discussion with Messrs Gruber, Hardenberger and Slatkin, which led to one of Haydn’s symphonies written for London, its slow introduction given its full quota of majesty by Slatkin as a stately prelude to a ’modern’ view of the music, with full strings (less just a couple of desks) and vibrato, and always expressive. This may have a gone a bit far in the slow movement, beautifully turned and sounded as it was, but a tad dragging in pace. It was the outer movements that fared best – affectionate and warm-hearted. Although the Minuet had a nice lilt, horns and trumpets were less than happy with some notes, and in the Trio the violins didn’t always get it together. Here, and in the Finale, there was a lack of classical poise that reminded that Haydn is not BBCSO repertoire: the best thing to do, to hone the requisite style, is play more of his symphonies!

This most wonderful composer, described enthusiastically and succinctly by Gruber as “intellectual and entertaining,” was followed by ’Nali’ himself. Aerial Is a 25-minute trumpet concerto as diverting in style as it is sound. The soloist is asked to find high and low pitches rarely required, master several instruments (including the Cowhorn, a peculiarly haunting timbre), be deft in changing (and not dropping) mutes and, finally, exit stage left to resound with the inside of a piano. Consummate virtuosity, which Hardenberger supplied of course, is needed to get around the roulade of notes, from the self-discovery of the opening section – Done with the compass, Done with the chart! – to allusions of the silver-screen in a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers ’number’ that, through Bergian harmonies, builds in tension before the soloist makes his premature departure. Impressively structured, with wit and drama intriguingly balanced and the big orchestra used with resource, this excellent performance revealed an imaginative, colourful and very communicative work worth getting to know.

In the talk, Gruber followed Stravinsky’s route that “music is music”. Quite so, but what should we make of Shostakovich’s final symphony? As pure music, it’s a great work, but what the sub-text is – and there must be one – is, literally, anybody’s guess. The Rossini and Wagner quotes have always seemed to belong – and whether 15 is autobiographical, death-haunted, tragic, farcical or hallucinatory, or all of these, it is deeply personal. One overall comment on its claustrophobic atmosphere might be there was ’no way out’ for its composer, whose economic lines and transparent scoring ensure that every note matters.

Slatkin’s, the third London performance of Symphony15 this season (I missed Kent Nagano’s recent LPO/RFH rendition), didn’t quite hit the spot at every turn. At its most focussed and impressive following the second movement’s outburst – several minutes frozen in time, the air full of suspense – and throughout the last movement, which grew inexorably before ending ’in mysterious circumstances’, hospital utensils banging (possibly) courtesy of orchestral percussion, before a single chime signals ’the end’.

This was all compellingly handled by Slatkin and his forces. However, if Shostakovich intended his first movement Allegretto marking as a warning to conductors not to speed, then Slatkin picked up a penalty point – the opening flute solo was a tad under pressure, and the William Tell quote lost its edge. Though if Slatkin wished to convey manic desperation … he was on the right lines.

The other London performance this season (also RFH) was the ’inside’ vision of Kurt Sanderling, leading the Philharmonia in a black, spacious and uncompromisingly bleak reading. Slatkin’s more objective account didn’t probe to that extent, and no reason why it should (Sanderling’s Russian connections and his friendship with the composer give him his own agenda); Slatkin certainly caught the darkness well enough, and the pensiveness, if not always the chill and loneliness. Nor was his orchestra the epitome of faultless ensemble – like Haydn, Shostakovich 15 is cruelly exposing of any stitch dropped; there was a lack of tension in the earlier stages of the first Adagio, the cello and trombone solos not burdened enough and tense in the wrong way.

Slatkin is a master orchestra builder and for pulling loose threads together. Just a few months into his tenure – a fantastic Tippett Second Symphony at Maida Vale the standard-bearer – I hope Shostakovich 15 will be re-visited when this (potentially tremendous) partnership has further developed.

This concert was broadcast on Radio 3 on 26th February 2001 at 7.30
Read Leonard Slatkin’s preview of this concert for Classical Source here

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