Saraste Shostakovich

Scherzo fantastique
Concerto for piano (left-hand) and orchestra
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 11 December, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

For his concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of which he is Principal Guest Conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste returned to the Barbican Hall for a blistering concert that focused on three works written between 1907 and 1936 – a mere 29 years apart but in three very different styles.

Stravinsky’s youthful, Rimsky-Korsakov-influenced Scherzo fantastique was given a darker-hued reading than Sinaisky conducted with the London Philharmonic a month or so back, but then the main work was Scheherazade – a very different kettle of fish to Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony.

Stravinsky’s scintillating orchestration was typified by the three harps and – in profile – it was a delight to see each harpist through the strings of the instruments do their filigree passage work. In one of those odd, serendipitous conjunctions it was the second work I had heard in three days with an oblique reference to bees. Following Arvo Pärt’s If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper under Gavin Bryars two nights earlier, I was amused to read that Stravinsky had been inspired by bees, although he later eschewed any suggestion of a programme. All we needed was a performance of Vaughan Williams’s incidental music for Aristophanes’s The Wasps, and a certain lollipop by Rimsky-Korsakov, and we could have had a veritable hive of music-making!

As it was we then had the low rumblings of Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s left-hand patterns that ape the growling basses at the start of Ravel’s 1929/1930 Concerto for piano left-hand. What followed was a vivid characterisation of this brilliant concerto, with a pleasing depth and certain rawness that I would not normally associate with Thibaudet. Without the trappings of a creation by Vivienne Westwood or the like – he appeared in a simple grey suit and open-necked shirt – and focused solely on Ravel’s genius, larger-than-life perhaps, but that all made one recognise a powerful facet of the composer’s make-up as opposed to his more usual effete and refined sheen.

After the interval Saraste turned to Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. I realised that my early mental calculation that the Soviet composer only really got into his symphonic style with his Fourth Symphony was wrong – it is the Fifth that really sees his musical fingerprints to the forefront. The Fourth – not heard for 25 years after the Stalin versus “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” debacle – is definitely Shostakovich’s most Mahlerian creation, different sorts of music not so much juxtaposed but rammed together – marches, fugues, aching solo lines and the final thundering climax, ebbing away in a minor key conclusion which is both ambiguous and forlorn – a sad memory of a former.

Saraste marshalled the BBC Symphony Orchestra with military precision, playing the climaxes for all they were worth, while subtly shading the accompaniment to the quieter passages, and got some incredibly fine playing. I was intrigued that the canopy above the stage had the two back boards in a vertical position, which – I assumed – was to cope with the two rows of percussion (two sets of timpani with the rest of the battery behind), allowing the sound from the back to go up and be partially restrained rather than being thrust-forward forcibly. The balance was put into perspective with the following night’s concert, when the glockenspiel in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Strauss under Haitink was much larger than life; the back two boards of the canopy having been lowered into their horizontal position again.

It was good to hear a practical instance of the Barbican’s flexible canopy actually working and all credit to Saraste’s fine ear for making use of those possibilities. It was a performance of this wonderful, shattering work that confirmed – until I hear another Shostakovich symphony that is – that the Fourth is his best…

  • Concert recorded for future broadcast

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