BBCSO/Belohlávek – 17 April

Clarinet Concerto in A, K622
Symphony No.13 in B flat minor, Op.113 (Babi Yar)

Julian Bliss (basset clarinet)

Sergei Alexashkin (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus (bass voices)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiri Belohlávek

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 17 April, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A seemingly incongruous pairing, with Mozart’s last completed orchestral work in total contrast to Shostakovich’s stark setting of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s verses, but it was no less an authority than Glazunov who described the young Shostakovich “as possessing a gift comparable to that of Mozart”. Whatever the reasoning behind the programme, it was one that worked extremely well in practice.

The Mozart afforded an opportunity to hear 14-year-old Julian Bliss in what is obviously the core work in the repertoire of solo clarinettists of whatever age. But before Bliss’s first entry, it was the sound of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Jiri Belohlávek’s affectionate direction, which impressed. Light strings, elegant phrasing and buoyant rhythms were distinctive features throughout, a supportive and sympathetic accompaniment.

The first impression from the youthful Bliss was that he was, comparatively speaking, producing a rather quiet if well-formed sound, including the basset clarinet’s low notes, with phrases beautifully shaped, and as the concerto progressed, he became somewhat more assertive. One or two hurried semiquavers aside, the first movement was superbly delivered and one relished his skill and musicianship. At the start of the sublime Adagio, the richness – though not stodginess – of the strings provided a telling contrast to the preceding Allegro. Bliss’s playing had poise and allure though not, as yet, that elegiac quality which will surely come in time. The finale danced along at quite a pace, but didn’t feel hurried, and the interplay between soloist and orchestra was infectious and delightful. Julian Bliss’s facility and communication is clearly something special. My only quibble was with his deportment, as he has a tendency to dart about hither and thither and to bob up and down. But this would stand him in good stead as an exponent of Stockhausen’s Harlekin for solo clarinet, where such movements are notated in the score. It would be encouraging indeed if Bliss were to take up such challenging repertoire.

Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony is one of his most challenging and darkest works. Challenging in several ways, as composer and poet draw attention to the atrocity at a ravine near Kiev, named Babi Yar, where, during the Second World War, thousands of Jews were massacred by the Germans. By extension and not-so-subtle inference, other forms of repression and butchery are alluded to. Leonard Bernstein described Shostakovich’s Fourteenth as “an incredible piece of protest,” but the spirit of protest perhaps applies with still greater force to No.13.

From time to time, the orchestra responds to the text – delivered by either the bass or chorus or both – with howls of pain. These moments were uncommonly well handled in this remarkable performance which was, at times, overwhelming in its expressive power. At first glance, the number of basses from the BBC Symphony Chorus appeared small, but what seemed a lack in quantity was more than made up for in the quality of singing and delivery of the Russian text.

Sergei Alexashkin was also a worthy exponent. Whether in moments requiring stentorian delivery, or poignant mezza voce, he was not found wanting. It’s a taxing part, which has been essayed by many distinguished singers. Alexashkin fully deserves to be in their company.

It was the compelling direction of Jiri Belohlávek, and the response he garnered, which was the key factor in the success of this performance. His undemonstrative, unflappable conducting nevertheless generated moments of both awesome strength and inward anguish. His tempos were prudently chosen, although the second movement was arguably a touch fast for Allegretto, though not for the metronome marking. This astonishingly venomous music seemed more than ever a ’danse macabre’ (pace the programme note, which led one to expect a march), with spiky solo violin and shrieking high woodwind given their head.

The lower strings were possibly a notch too loud at the start of the third movement, and the solo tuba rather self-consciously expressive at the opening of the setting of “Fears”, the one text written expressly for the symphony and which forms the fourth movement. This is perhaps the most discomfiting moment in the whole work where the poet proclaims “Fears are dying away in Russia” – but the music informs us that they are omnipresent. Belohlávek did not for a moment suggest that the shadows – or worse – had been completely cast aside as the fifth and final movement got underway, the flutes merely suggesting temporary abeyance. Neither did the conclusion leave much comfort, but an uneasy, troubled calm.

Any performance of any musical work should, ultimately, leave one feeling admiration for the composer’s skill and an appreciation of his vision. The singers and orchestra, under Jiri Belohlávek, succeeded in this, at times, harrowing rendering of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 19 April at 7.30

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