Shoreless River … Paganini Rhapsody … The Year 1905

Shoreless River [BBC co-commission with the WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, and National Symphony Orchestra, Washington, DC: UK premiere]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)

Denis Matsuev (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Semyon BychkovEven some of Shostakovich’s greatest admirers seem to have problems with Symphony 11; a curious situation given that it is one of his most fascinating works. If there is a qualification about the work’s stature, then it is the simple fact that it needs a performance that is truly extreme, such as in the poles-apart interpretations (as recorded) by Kyril Kondrashin (Moscow Philharmonic) and Mstislav Rostropovich (LSO Live) that each establish a totally compelling and convincing stance (although Rostropovich’s conducting of this work at the BBC Proms in 1992 with the European Community Youth Orchestra remains something unforgettable). It’s not just the difference in overall timing (Kondrashin a nifty 54 minutes or so, Rostropovich adding nearly 20 to this), it’s the complete identification with the music and its graphic (cinematic) description of eerie tension, revolution, its crushing, the lamenting aftermath, and continued revolt. If the 1905 Revolution failed, such insurrection simmered until 1917 success, and Shostakovich completed this symphony in the wake of the Hungarian Uprising.

Semyon Bychkov has already recorded Shostakovich 11 (for Avie) and, in this BBC Proms account, conjured a well-prepared and convincing performance that, even so, didn’t go far enough. That it lasted about an hour is perhaps neither here nor there, but it seems that performances that come somewhere between Kondrashin and Rostropovich can seem ‘middle of the road’; here, it was a case of ‘not enough’ – not eerie enough, or suspenseful, or graphic, or threatening. Tempo and dynamic changes unsettled the first movement (‘Palace Square’) in the wrong way and the second (‘The Ninth of January’) hung fire somewhat, so that the crushing of the uprising – although violently presented – seemed musically gratuitous in relation to what had gone before. Even so, the ‘Eternal Memory’ movement that follows was very moving, the BBCSO’s violas deeply lamenting, Bychkov bringing out the music’s kinship with Tchaikovsky; but the finale (a succession of Revolutionary Songs) was, once again, just a little inhibited. As the symphony falls into reverie, Alison Teale’s cor anglais solo was another eloquent contribution, and the church bells sounded a magnificent alarm through the coda’s rumpus – Bychkov requiring the tintinnabulation to be abruptly cut-off – but it didn’t quite raise the roof.

Denis MatsuevA similar concern for ‘the letter’ rather than ‘the spirit’ undermined Paganini Rhapsody. Save for some usually-buried orchestral detail emerging afresh, this was an earthbound and comfortable play-through, Denis Matsuev, however technically impressive, an outsider to the composer’s intense feeling, the pianist offering little beyond display and over-forceful fortissimos.

Detlev Glanert (born 1960) has composed some impressive pieces; Shoreless River (Fluß ohne Ufer), dedicated to Semyon Bychkov, is another one, a 17-minute work owing to the novel by Hans Henny Jahnn (1894-1959). This is music of contrast, from ominous stirrings, through spooky scherzo, to deep-seated lyricism and scintillating momentum; jagged and raucous passages always belong to the whole, the engulfing climax surely placed, the ensuing fragile beauty of solo violins equally convincing. The final stroke of a bell suggests both an end and a beginning. It’s another triumph for Glanert.

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