Slatkin’s Sensational Shostakovich

Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)

Emanuel Ax (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 12 May, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

On the eve of a tour of major European cities, to include two concerts in the Prague Spring Festival (with a contribution to its complete Dvořák symphony cycle – with No 6, regrettably not being played in London), Leonard Slatkin and his BBC Symphony Orchestra welcomed Emanuel Ax to the Barbican Hall for a typically urbane and totally satisfying account of Mozart’s D minor piano concerto.

Slatkin’s way with the accompaniment (although in this concerto it is really a partnership, especially for the wind players) intensified, but did not overdo, the rhythmic restlessness of the opening. While adopting the trappings of period style – hard sticks for the timpani for example – Slatkin did not enforce period practice. Indeed he allowed a modern performing style to develop which perfectly suited the contemporary symphony orchestra and concert grand piano.

Ax and Slatkin were matchless partner – indeed when has Ax disappointed? A musician in every cell of his body, Ax never fails to engage an audience, his own enthusiasm for the work in question not in doubt. He chose outer movement cadenzas by, respectively, Beethoven and Hummel.

This was the second BBCSO Barbican concert on the trot that brought together Mozart and Shostakovich. And, again, the audience spilled over from the stalls into the first tier of the Barbican Hall. The audience witnessed a coruscating rendition of Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, inspired by the first of the two ‘Russian Revolutions’. From the eerie opening string chords, the sense of space between the fanfare motifs and side drum tattoos was tangible; somehow the Barbican acoustic rendering this all the more effective than Pletnev’s recent performance with his Russian National Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall. I wondered if the Barbican’s acoustic baffle boards were specially arranged – the one at the back seemed at a different angle than usual, and this seemed to benefit the balance of the percussion.

Slatkin’s view of the score was beautifully judged and the battering climaxes were brilliantly executed, with biting power; the final chord cut clean leaving only a ringing bell to die away. Utterly shattering, as Shostakovich meant. Fantastic solo playing from cor anglais player Celia Craig and co-principal bassoonist Julie Price in their long solos, rightly singled out for ovations from Slatkin, but their individual contributions were only indicative of the highest standard of playing from the whole orchestra. Intriguingly, Slatkin took just over 68 minutes, but it felt much faster than Pletnev’s 62 minutes.

Audiences in Prague, Barcelona and Madrid are in for a real treat, and listen out for broadcasts from the tour.

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