Prom 55: Old-fashioned Beethoven

Symphony No.2 in B, ’To October’
Symphony No.9 in D minor, ’Choral’

Melanie Diener (soprano)
Paula Rasmussen (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Gambill (tenor)
Eike Wilm Schulte (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 31 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was an interesting piece of programming – Shostakovich’s ode to October and Lenin, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy can surely never have been coupled together before.

However peculiar the pairing, it worked in practice. Shostakovich’s Second Symphony remains one of his least performed – this was its first airing at the Proms – and serves to remind us just what a radical musical mind the young composer had. In this work, which is arguably not really a symphony at all, Shostakovich experiments with sonority and textures – there is rarely a memorable melodic moment as such and the concept of conventional development of musical ideas is set aside. The remarkable fugal section, which has thirteen independent parts, is surely unprecedented in music, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic revelled in the extravagantly virtuosic writing here, whilst at the outset, the mysterious string figures were played as a mere whisper with no hint of a crescendo – as the composer intended.

The wilder moments were wild indeed, with high trumpets and rasping trombones cutting effectively through the texture.The final choral section sets words by Alexander Bezymensky, and Shostakovich apparently found them “quite disgusting”. They are indeed jingoistic to the point of embarrassment, praising as they do “October, the Commune and Lenin”, but whatever Shostakovich may or may not have thought about them, they make a powerful impact – especially when so throatily and convincingly delivered as they were on this occasion by the BBC Symphony Chorus. There is also an interesting moment of typical Shostakovich irony, when after the chorus utters the name of Lenin for the first time, trumpets blare out a ’warning’ note, so perhaps the composer’s message is not quite so clear-cut, or towing the party-line, as it might appear.

In sum, this was a thoroughly convincing performance of this interesting work. After the interval, however, things took a different turn. In some ways, Salonen’s approach to Beethoven was quite old-fashioned, with the woodwind doubled, horns reinforcing wind lines in the ’Scherzo’, and tempi were on the whole fairly steady. However, there was an alarming lack of tension and drama throughout, as if Salonen was content just to ’play the notes’ – and extremely well-played they were too. It may seem an impertinence to suggest it, but the conductor appeared not to have any particular interpretative view of this monumental work. The first movement ambled along, but the ferocious eruptions, which should occur from time to time, were nowhere to be found. In the ’Scherzo’, instead of a sense of danger, it was all light and airy (in spite of outstanding timpani playing) and the ’Trio’ was too fast.

The third movement was more ’Andante’ than ’Adagio’, and where was the sense of world-weariness, or resignation, even, which is inherent in this music? This movement is surely much more then an agreeable set of interesting variations. The ’Finale’ began tamely, and although the famous theme grew majestically, it was only with the entry of the voices that things really started to take off, as if the singers (the chorus especially) were keener than the conductor to convey Beethoven’s vision of universal brotherhood.

Eike Wilm Schulte was an authoritative baritone, and the quartet blended reasonably well – no mean feat in this work – with Melanie Diener a radiant soprano. Again, the chorus distinguished itself – a tribute to its chorus-master, Stephen Jackson – but the whole rendering fell far short of being “feuertrunken”.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Thursday, 5 September, at 2 o’clock

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