LSO/Haitink Shostakovich 15

Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Symphony No.15 in A, Op.141

Maria João Pires (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 January, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This year’s Mozart 250th anniversary and Shostakovich centenary makes bringing the two composers together in concert doubly appropriate. And there are few more persuasive exponents of the former currently active than Portuguese pianist Maria JoãoPires (here replacing Murray Perahia) – whose lucid and inward, yet intensely alive playing was much to the fore in her account of the D minor Concerto that occupied the first half.

Not that she and Bernard Haitink were always interpretatively of like mind. Thus Haitink’s phlegmatic rendering of the opening tutti felt at odds with the expressive immediacy of Pires’s first entry, and there was similar disparity – albeit in passing – at each formal juncture in this disquieting movement. Not so the ‘Romanza’, whose stormy central section was perfectly integrated into what is otherwise the most unassuming slow movement ofMozart’s later piano concertos, while the finale’s engaging repartee also had appropriate rhetoric. Yet the undoubted highlight was Pires’s precise and wonderfully unaffected handling of Beethoven’s cadenzas: the one for the first movement made into an emotional encapsulation of the Allegro’s restless uncertainty, and that for the finale not so much preparing for the D major homecoming as pointing up the wry humour which is surely inherent in its very occurrence.

To see D major given as the key for Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony might have goaded some into expecting an added layer of ambiguity in a work that already abounds in all manner of puns conceptual and expressive. Haitink first made his mark here over a quarter-century ago (in what was only the symphony’s second recording in the West), and time has served generally to deepen his understanding of the piece’s ‘less is more’ maxim. Its slithering and fragmentary themes finely weighted and shaded,the opening Allegretto left a more substantial impression than in more headlong readings – with the ‘William Tell’ quotation more a quirk of phrasing than a supra-musical reference – and the scherzo was more assiduous in emphasising subtle nuances than in driving home the music’s often brittle humour.

In between, the slow movement was – as previously with Haitink – the performance’s highpoint. Its cello soliloquies passionately phrased (if marginally overwrought) by Tim Hugh, and with Dudley Bright injecting a baleful intensity into the ‘last trump’ trombone solos, the outcome was a climax shattering in its impact yet with enough emotion held in reserve for the desolate closing pages to register with even greater intensity. If the finale wasless convincing overall, this was because Haitink now seems unsure just how to pace the central passacaglia that emerges ominously out of the flowing serenade-like music preceding it. Barely modifying the pulse at the outset, Haitink held back markedly as the central climax was approached – pre-empting its crushing finality. Nor was the harmonic dissonance intowhich it evaporates as enveloping as it might have been, but the lead-back through earlier material was securely judged, and the coda given with a potent sense of time playing out with exquisite poignancy.

Here, as earlier, the all-important percussion contribution was fastidiously as well as being accurately rendered – setting the seal on an account that can rank high among several fine performances that the symphony has received in London these past five years. Moreover, in playing to his strengths as a musician, Haitink played equally to those of this endlessly absorbing and supremely achieved work.

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