Review: BBC NOW - Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony
With our new principle conductor Thomas SÃ¸ndergÃ¥rd, we commence a new year of music with BBC NOW.
This feature presentation was a double whammy of celebrations with the BBC National Chorus of Wales marking the very same night, 30 years before, when they had their first ever rehearsal.
The second was nonetheless our maestro’s birthday as well who turned 44, who doesn’t look it (what are the odds of both on the same day?). He briefly introduced the music before the concert and some audience members started singing happy birthday, to which the chorus gloriously finished the end of the song. He gratefully replied with ‘we should do that every time!’
To whip us into shape with the orchestral and chorus, we were off to France and perhaps heaven itself, with Francis Poulenc’s Gloria. This cheeky work is so vastly different to other sacred music, that it can seem at times the complete opposite. This work was inspired by frescos of angels with their tongues out and the composer seeing monks playing football (as you do). The Norwegian soprano Marita SÃ¸lberg and the chorus had some flirtatious and gracious singing in this. It’s the third time I’ve heard it live and it just gets better after every hearing. It can’t help but bring a smile to your face and a tap in your foot. More Poulenc please.
BBC NOW have just about recovered from their BBC Proms summer performance of Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, the Leningrad (I heard it there back in 2009). So Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony here, was an event in itself. This towering work is grim, harrowing and can be like immense punches in the face. At an hour long and with its mass of players, the composer still makes time for much more intimate moments, with solos from at least half a dozen of the musicians.
First the cor anglais having the largest and most ambitious. The piccolo (which he always uses as an instrument in its own right) had great trills and charm before things turn deadly serious. The lead violin jumpy and hectic, then the cello towards the end, a proud and resolute statement. The trumpet going off on several trips, musically. The cataclysmic marches made for devastating sections of menace and brutality. Hairs on the back of my neck, rose once again.
This sympathy is nowhere near as popular as his symphonies No. 5, 7 and 10. It’s considered his most morbid and is attributed to the awful time Russia faced during the Second World War in the year 1942. So because of this, it has been dubbed the Stalingrad, although this is not an official label. It's one of his most important but there are others which exceed its creative expressions. I’m not saying it’s not a staggering achievement, the fact is I know and love his other symphonic works much better (even though I had forgot I have a recording of this on CD). The programme notes have also become much more detailed and therefore deeper. Yet all that was said about the man and his music made perfect sense to me. The feeling that your walking blind with his music and you simply don’t know where it will take you next is one of his best attributes as a composer.
In a little post-show talk, our conductor now confirms that Shostakovich is his favourite composer, a remark he couldn’t have said in his youth. He spoke of the apparent "inhuman" nature which looms over the Russian composers work. Asked by one member of the audience "Tell us which is your favourite piece of music?" he simply replied "No, I really can’t!" This member then went on to say of a piece of music which moved him to tears, not the Shostakovich but another work which he never said what it was (why bother saying this then?).
SÃ¸ndergÃ¥rd has always expressed his love of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Whilst conducting in France recently, he was informed by someone that "In France, we can’t stand Sibelius". His performance persuaded them otherwise in a recent concert there. He spoke highly of his 6th and 7th Symphonies. As was said in a previous post-show talk by him, "Alright, lets have more Sibelius!" Here’s hoping from me.
I can sense that it is going to be a momentous year of great music making.
For more information on Shostakovich's 8th Symphony, click here.