London Philharmonic Leningrad Symphony

Concerto for Piano (left-hand) and Orchestra
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 March, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Photograph: Decca/KasskaraThe current regrettable trend for orchestras to programme overture-less concerts here resulted in an imbalance – a short concerto (albeit a masterpiece, written for Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm in World War I) – which generally plays for less time than a standard interval – and an outsize symphony. Given the subterranean menace and macabre marching of one of Ravel’s darkest scores and the graphic nature of Shostakovich’s World War II symphony (Leningrad besieged by the Nazis, even if the composer suggested that Hitler merely finished off what Stalin had started), the perfect starter would have been Martinů’s (circa 10-minute) Memorial to Lidice (1943), a musical memorial to the German Army-ransacked Bohemian village.

As it was the concert started 15 minutes late – with no reason offered – and the performance of the Ravel was eventually undone by a resolute tightness that, orchestrally, lacked atmosphere, tension and danger – with brass too loud and consistently drowning-out the strings, the latter thin-sounding. Jean-Yves Thibaudet initially impressed with a thunderous and clipped entrance; he unearthed the music’s anger and regret, but, come the closing cadenza, there was no repose and no sense of culmination as the final bars welled-up leaving the brief, trudging pay-off seeming inconsequential and surely including something unsolicited from the percussion section. The work – here taking a quick-step 16 minutes – was dwarfed by whatever shenanigans had delayed the concert’s start and then we endured a 30-minute interval!

Vladimir Jurowski. Photograph: Sheila RockThe string-sound in the Shostakovich was a decided improvement – perhaps because the solo piano had now disappeared – and maybe Vladimir Jurowski has now located the orchestra-layout he’s been looking for – antiphonal violins with violas (right-positioned) and cellos sharing the centre. I suspect though that the right-positioned, not-on-risers double basses (here 7 for Ravel and 9 for Shostakovich, although 10 players were listed) would make more impression across the back of the platform.

As for the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony itself, it needs a special sort of identification to make it ‘work’ – otherwise it seems to be a sprawling and hollow ragbag of ideas. This performance had its moments – splendid solos from piccolo, bassoon and bass clarinet and the LPO’s viola section produced seductively beautiful sounds – but they didn’t add up. Furthermore, Jurowski’s deployment of the extra brass (4 horns and 3 each of trumpets and trombones) was questionable. These players were cast adrift into the Choir seats (and seemed too isolated – a previous LPO performance of ‘Shos 7’, in the ‘old’ Royal Festival Hall, under Kurt Masur, managed to convincingly integrate the additional players on the platform). Furthermore, having these players stand whenever they played seemed a crass gimmick rather than anything germane; and – I await to be corrected on this – surely the extra brass does not play until the (triumphant?) final bars are reached. Here dynamic peaks were fortified by additional brass – which nullified the ultimate coda and rendered climaxes loud and noisy rather than searing and impassioned; this seems such an ‘empty’ work without seething conviction.

Not that Jurowski led a disjointed account: rather his objective conducting laid-bare the work’s many weaknesses, although the efficient opening and one-tempo-will-do approach seemed intent on throwing a ‘symphonic’ line over the whole, squeezing the music into place rather than allowing it its own space. Moments of reverie did surface, however, but quite why Jurowski toyed with the interlude-like second movement, making it seem so precious (even if such deliberation did bring out grotesque contrasts), was perplexing, but at least the slow movement dug deeper into human consciousness.

By the way, Stephen Johnson’s programme-note implied that the premiere of the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony was in that city on 9 August 1942 conducted by Karl Eliasberg. While correct, that was the fifth performance – Samuil Samosud led the first performance in Kuibyshev on 5 March 1942 with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and there was a further performance in Moscow a few weeks later. Henry Wood (in London) and Arturo Toscanini (in New York) had already conducted the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony before it reached its home city.

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