Prom 66 – Stunning Shostakovich

Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat
Symphony No.7 in C (Leningrad)

Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 8 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It is one of those facts of life that so busy is the Proms schedule that not all the regional orchestras can fit in every year. Thus the Hallé were back this year, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which visited last year, have been absent this.Also missing last year, the RSNO made a welcome return with principal conductor Alexander Lazarev, intended as a 300th-birthday salute to St Petersburg and featuring Shostakovich’s epic Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, written under appalling conditions, while the city was under Hitler’s siege.

With the RSNO, in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Lazarev, actually Moscow-born, conducted a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s symphonies over a couple of seasons to tie in with the 25th-anniversary of the composer’s death (as this last season he conducted a Prokofiev symphony cycle). It is good to have a sample of that momentous undertaking – from this thrilling, spontaneous and dynamically wide-ranging performance Scotland must have enjoyed some of the highest-voltage performances.

This is music that means something; whichever of the various programmatic suggestions you favour (the ’official’ anti-Nazi line or the hidden meaning of the enemy being Stalin, etc).Lazarev conducted for all it was worth, positively bouncing at the end, the adrenaline still pumping so he couldn’t keep still, applauding his orchestra and the audience alike.He held an iron grip on the architecture so that, for once, the second, third and fourth movements seemed part of a well-argued whole; often the first movement occludes all memory of the rest.

The wartime advance signalled in the massive central section of that first movement, started at the very edge of audibility.I’m not sure I have ever heard such quiet music in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, and all credit to a mercifully controlled audience that, for the most part, held their nerve, coughs, sneezes, phones, watches and rustling plastic bags to allow this passage, at least, to pass without interruption. From these quietest of beginnings, and supremely steady side-drum players, Lazarev inexorably built a shattering climax, utterly overwhelming and utterly moving.

Curious that the other side-drum-led crescendo, Ravel’s Boléro, was featured the day before – the RSNO knocked spots off the Vienna Philharmonic in total dedication. The second movement offered some welcome light relief, before the slow turn of the tension-screw started again, building – ultimately – to the final climax, for which, somehow, Lazarev and his orchestra had kept some stamina back. No wonder the packed Arena and very full hall went wild.

Earlier, Nikolai Lugansky had been the cool, calm and collected soloist in Prokofiev’s enfant terrible announcement to the world, his First Piano Concerto. Much shorter in total than the first movement of Brahms’s First Concerto, this whizzed by in brilliant colour and fervent virtuosity, but was knocked for six by the Shostakovich.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Wednesday 10 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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