Pathétique Symphony

The Golden Age [excerpts]
Viola Concerto
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

Yuri Bashmet (viola)

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 18 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It is hard to imagine music darker than Alfred Schnittke’s Viola Concerto, completed in 1985. The composer suffered his first stroke during its composition, and it is difficult not to read thoughts of mortality into the work. Schnittke’s language is continually shifting in tone, erupting unexpectedly into a grotesque waltz or settling on a weirdly quiescent cadence. He invests familiar gestures with ironic unease, but here there is none of the gamesmanship that characterises earlier works: the stakes are much higher. After the slow, raw first movement, the second opens with the soloist’s frenzied arpeggios before giving way to a sweetly sinister duet with a double bass, whose lyricism has more than a hint of desperation, and is eventually crushed by the orchestra.

Yuri Bashmet brought unassailable authority to the solo part (the work was written for him); the cadenza that begins the finale was spellbinding, the viola sounding like an open-wound. The London Symphony Orchestra (Schnittke’s scoring includes a piano and a harpsichord) was brutal under Valery Gergiev; the finale was played at a pitch of almost unbearable intensity as an Orthodox chant emerged in the low brass to progressively overwhelm the soloist. The viola was left floating inconclusively between pitches before fading away altogether.

To begin the concert, excerpts (rather than the Suite) from Shostakovich’s knockabout score for the ballet The Golden Age had been given a bravura performance. The plot, which details the adventures of a Soviet football team tempted by the corrupt pleasures of a decadent Western City, is very silly. But in Gergiev’s hands this selection of numbers served as a brilliant orchestral showpiece: syncopation crackled with energy alongside moments of tender repose, and Tahiti Trot (Shostakovich’s witty orchestration of Vincent Youmans’s “Tea for Two” from “No, No, Nanette”) was affectionately nostalgic.

Altogether meatier was the phenomenal performance of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony. Gergiev is one of few conductors who can accurately be described as ‘electrifying’, who can drive an orchestra to the limits of the possible by sheer physical effort; watch his right hand, perpetually moving to draw exactly the right quality of string tone from his players. In the LSO (he becomes Principal Conductor at the beginning of 2007) he has an orchestra that responds brilliantly to being taken to such extremes.

He conjured the opening from abysmal depths (double basses positioned on the left), before the brass entered with crunching impact; in contrast, the ‘love’ theme was expansive and luxurious, before the development went off like a rocket. Gergiev understands the emotional extremes required by Tchaikovsky’s symphonies; his reading was also notable for its use of silence to punctuate the alternating elation and despair.

The dream-like waltz of the second movement was unexpectedly graceful, but the ensuing Allegro molto vivace was almost deranged, viscerally thrilling but terrifyingly manic. Not heeding the Prommers’ stunned (intrusive) applause, Gergiev plunged into the slow finale, conveying its tragic theme as a series of body blows. The final submission to darkness, as the titanic bass-line slowed and stopped, was followed by a long silence.

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