Prokofiev and Shostakovich under Stalin – Babi Yar (23 March)

Violin Concerto No.2 in C sharp minor, Op.129
Symphony No.13 in B flat minor, Op.113 (Babi Yar)

Gidon Kremer (violin)

Anatoli Kotscherga (bass)
London Philharmonic Choir

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 March, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

For this final concert in Vladimir Ashkenazy’s series marking the 50th-anniversary of the deaths of Prokofiev and Stalin, an enlighteningall-Shostakovich programme from the years of cyclical ’thaw and freeze’ under Krushchev and Brezhnev.

Neither the second cello or violin concerto enjoys the success of itspredecessors. With the Second Violin Concerto (1967), a plainness ofmaterial and austerity of gesture – not to mention the manifest technicalobstacles – has led to few soloists since dedicatee David Oistrakh taking up its challenges. One such is Gidon Kremer, whose sense of the ambiguous in music makes him the ideal exponent of a work which, even by Shostakovich’s standards, abounds in double meanings.

In its juxtaposing of imploring cantilena and cryptic irony, the opening’Moderato’ is difficult to hold together as a coherent entity. With attentive support from Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia, Kremer fashioned the movement into a powerful and disquieting statement – its ambivalence complemented by the elegiac beauty of the ensuing ’Adagio’ (with its extraordinary violin-and-timpani cadenza) and compounded by the biting wit of the ’Allegro’ Finale, in which timpani and tom-tom drive the music home on a fusillade of nervous energy. Whether a radical rethink of the ’virtuoso concerto’ or, indeed, a final nail in the genre’s coffin is just one of the work’s endlessly debatable attributes.

There can be little equivocation about the nature of the Thirteenth Symphony (1962). Often seen as the climax of Shostakovich’s ’Russian phase’, in which a Mussorgsky-derived nationalism is refracted through post-Stalinist cultural uncertainty, the composer here combines his public and private faces in an uncompromising address to society – one emotionally richer and more compassionate than the Yevgeny Yevtushenko poems which provided the catalyst. And, from the perspective of our own time, more relevant too.

Less distilled in its language than the music of Shostakovich’s last decade, the Thirteenth presents problems of its own in performance. The male-voice chorus needs to carry over the orchestra: numbering around 50 on this occasion, it fell short of the required forcefulness in the outbursts of the first and third movements, for all the London Philharmonic Choir’s undoubted trenchancy of attack. A lyrical rather than heroic bass, Anatoli Kotscherga lacked implacability in the detailing of actual Nazi – and implied Soviet – atrocities in the ’Babi Yar’ movement, but projected a winning ’master of ceremonies’ demeanour in the ’Humour’ scherzo (despite an ’off the cuff’ phrase that nearly threw the performance off-kilter at one point).

Ashkenazy ensured a brazen attack from the Philharmonia’s brass and percussion that threatened to straitjacket the musical follow-through inthese two movements. ’In the Store’ then emerged a shade listlessly – this is music whose dogged unfolding needs to reinforce the dreariness of the Soviet environment – but the furtive gestures and grating juxtapositions of ’Fears’ were riveting. The indelible aura created by the carolling flutes at the beginning of ’A Career’ duly cast its spell, and if Kotscherga’s pointing of this warning as to the perils of ’vocation’ lacked a degree of gravitas, the quixotic mood was tellingly rendered.

Only Shostakovich could draw consolation from disillusion so exquisitely ashere: a point made clear by this engaging and sympathetic performance.

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