Sir Edward Downes @ 80

The Pines of Rome
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)

BBC Philharmonic
Sir Edward Downes

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 17 June, 2004
Venue: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

In the words of Sir Edward Downes: “The duty of a conductor should be to present to his audience a faithful and accurate account of the composer’s music as he wrote it, disregarding any subsequent interpretations, meanings or political agendas that may have been attached to it by others.”

Therefore the duty of a conductor is to sufficiently understand the specific circumstances of a particular work so as to appreciate the emotional forces which shaped it – for therein lies the truth – and make those forces live again in the hearts of both musicians and audience.

At this concert, on the very day of his 80th-birthday, Sir Edward Downes, Conductor Emeritus of the BBC Philharmonic, 36 years associated with the orchestra, certainly went some way to achieving this with blazing performances of Respighi’s richly-hued tone-poem and Shostakovich’s monumental Seventh Symphony (a work with which Downes also celebrated his seventieth birthday).

Respighi’s four-section tone-poem is an evocation of landscape and associations, especially martial ones; for Respighi it was historically imagined; for Shostakovich in wartime Leningrad it was horribly real. In ‘The Pines of the Villa Borghese’, Downes, with his wonderfully economical conducting technique, brought forth from the orchestra a shower of sparkling fanfares, scampering melody and raucous harmonies as the children went about their innocent war-games. In ‘Pines near a Catacomb’, Downes carefully controlled the contrasting orchestral colours of the plainchant material so as not to overplay his hand. ‘The Pines of the Janiculum’ issued forth some delicious arpeggios from the piano that ushered in a fine clarinet solo by John Bradbury before Downes made the strings pulse and bloom delicately into life. Downes’s astonishing sense of tasteful theatricality was reserved for ‘The Pines of the Appian Way’ with its explosive climax, all stops literally pulled out. (Or so we thought – the Shostakovich was to show otherwise.)

Much nonsense has been written about Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony over the years. Downes again: “Towards the end of his life Shostakovich spoke bitterly about the fact that people were paying more attention to what was written about his music than to the music itself. Please listen to Shostakovich’s own voice – a voice that needs no words – the voice of a good man – the voice of the greatest composer of our time.”

This performance of the Seventh Symphony was probably one of the most ‘Russian’-sounding I’ve heard, which has nothing to do with the sound of the orchestra or the style of conducting. There was an honest craftsmanship at work here arising out of a lifetime of performing Russian music in general, Prokofiev and Shostakovich in particular. Downes never abandoned the steady though subtly flexible pulse of the opening Allegretto, its militaristic onslaught initially coming from the distance; nor did he give way to emotional vulgarity, and the climax was all the more powerful for it. There was a precision and freshness in the succeeding Moderato that again magically resolved itself in a shattering crescendo that seemed effortless.

The pungent opening chords in the Adagio opened out huge vistas of agitated dance and majestic chorales, Downes preparing himself in an almost spiritual fashion for the ensuing finale: its urgent climax and bells pealing away in the brass (quite Brucknerian!) sounded like both Heaven and Hell unleashed on earth simultaneously!

Superb performances, then, of two contrasting works. And the genius was not the least in the juxtaposition of both; together they were made to comment on each other, pointing up more similarities than differences.

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