RCO/Rostropovich – 27 April

Mussorgsky orch. Shostakovich
Khovanshchina – Prelude to Act 1 & Dance of the Persian Maidens
Songs and Dances of Death
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 27 April, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Well I say that Shostakovich’s Mussorgsky orchestrations were used: the programme notes mentioned alternatives but never specified. The ’Dawn over the Moscow River’ prelude had me questioning the presence of a piano. Certainly not Rimsky then! One would expect Rostropovich to use Shostakovich, but even the Persian section didn’t quite tally. There is an orchestration of the Prelude by Bastiaan Blomhert; but this was even mentioned as a possibility. In any event, while one registered the spun-thread string playing in the Dance as being Amsterdam in origin, both Khovanshchina extracts were curiously underplayed: the prelude picturesque with surprisingly little chill, while the dance was languorous enough but tame.

Probably no doubts that Shostakovich was used for the Songs. The spare and austere soundworld; it’s amazing how Shostakovich can take Mussorgsky’s original and make it his own – soul mates across the decades. Orchestrally impressive, the RCO sensitively delineating Mussorgsky’s personal identification with death in various guises; Shostakovich tapping-in to persecution aspects. In terms of vocal resource, Olga Borodina gave a very impressive rendition, one that included a wide range of dynamics (including near-inaudibility), the whole unruffled and occasionally suggestive. Many a “Brava” rang out afterwards – for her beautiful voice and perfect address; yet a lack of rawness and nerve ends ultimately meant that she reported the facts rather than identified with them.

Not so in Shostakovich Five, the composer’s response to “just criticism”, which was originally heard as it was intended to be by the Stalinist system; of course, Shostakovich meant entirely the reverse – as Rostropovich’s perfectly deadpan delivery of the automated final bars showed. Not sure that the standing ovation was absolutely justified for this one concert, some of the audience clearly wanting to be seen, and reducing the event as a consequence. Surely such a partisan response was what Shostakovich was fighting!

With the RCO somewhat unkempt, woodwind solos seemingly carte blanche, but playing with total commitment and characteristic silver-toned lucidity (if not sounding always itself), ’Slava’ caught the mood from the inside, which didn’t entirely excuse the overloud, piercing trumpets at times, but there was no denying the heart and soul that caught unerringly the music’s frenetic and forced countenance, the mood-swings and crepuscular musing. Not so much a great piece of music as a great piece of subterfuge.

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