Shostakovich 15 & The Bells

Symphony No.15 in A, Op.141
The Bells, Op.35

Galina Gorchakova (soprano)
Ilya Levinsky (tenor)
Pavel Baransky (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 May, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Appropriate to Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s time as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra coming to a close, this concert consisted of valedictory Russian works: temporally with Shostakovich, whose Fifteenth Symphony was also to be his last; aesthetically so with Rachmaninov, whose choral symphony “The Bells” taps into a deep vein of nostalgia and regret – and was, unsurprisingly, his own favourite among all his works.

Saraste is a conductor whose preference for the unfolding expanse can risk a measure of expressive immediacy. So it was gratifying that the opening movement of the Shostakovich exhibited real bite and pungency – less an evocation of a toy-shop at midnight, as the composer’s infamous description has it, but one where guileless first appearances give way to something much more ominous, indeed threatening. The Adagio found Saraste in his element: drawing out those cello soliloquies (courtesy of Susan Monks) with keen eloquence, and finely dovetailing the music’s fugitive gestures with a steady momentum that culminates in one of Shostakovich’s most tragic climaxes, and an aftermath whose sparseness only furthers its bleak intensity. Maybe the percussive underlay of the quizzical scherzo could have been more insistent, while the finale ideally needs more expressive gravitas if its central passacaglia is to exert the physical impact it evidently possesses. Yet Saraste held the movement together securely, and handled the strangely distanced elegance of its outer sections with a deftness such that the sense of time running out which informs the coda came through with due inevitability. Perhaps it is Saraste’s undoubted (and undoubtedly increasing) prowess in Sibelius that came across here: then again, maybe it is Shostakovich’s Sibelian instincts that are being so manifestly engaged?

Would that the performance of “The Bells” had left so thought-provoking an impression. In particular, the soloists left a good deal to be desired – though less so Galina Gorchakova whose emotional input at least endowed “The Mellow Wedding Bells” with a modicum of yearning intensity, despite passing vagaries of intonation. But Ilya Levinsky sounded completely out of sorts – both in phrasing and in his interaction with the orchestra – in “The Silver Sleigh Bells”, here lacking any real liveliness or geniality, and while Pavel Baransky sounded rather more involved, nothing in his contribution to “The Mournful Iron Bells” suggested any deeper identity with this most confessional of all Rachmaninov’s symphonic movements. Saraste directed ably enough, but it was the BBC Symphony Chorus that stole the show with its lustily committed singing of a work it has performed often in recent years. All the more pity that the expressive fervour imparted to “The Loud Alarum Bells” was little in evidence elsewhere.

So, a concert of two halves in all senses – though with the encouraging sign that Saraste (who will be returning to work with the BBCSO next season, and hopefully thereafter) is shaping into a notable Shostakovich interpreter of thoughtful, undemonstrative cut (he conducts No.11 at this year’s Proms): qualities sorely needed if 2006’s glut of performances is to evince other than the expressive overkill it is otherwise likely to generate.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 26 May at 7.30

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