“I want my listeners, as they leave the hall after hearing my symphony, to think that life is truly beautiful.” Such a life-affirming statement must surely apply to Beethoven and his most high-spirited of symphonies, the Seventh. But it was actually Shostakovich who said this, to describe his altogether more sobering Symphony no. 14, a work dealing with “the eternal themes of love and death”. Curiously, these two symphonies of contrasting emotions, one often performed and one hardly ever, do share a golden thread – the preciousness of life. So hats off to Gianandrea Noseda for bringing them together in his continuing Shostakovich cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican.

Elena Stikhina, Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Shostakovich always felt the need to mourn the dead, and said that most of his symphonies were tombstones. His Fourteenth is made up of 11 songs based on poems about unnatural or untimely death. Causes such as war, oppression, tyranny, suicide and madness all feature in this work, so there is much to ponder. From the stillness of the high violins in the opening movement into the sass and bite of the second movement Spanish-themed Malagueña, complete with castanets and cracks of the whip, Noseda made it easy to forget that, apart from the two singers, there were only 28 people performing, just strings and percussion, which made the stark contrasts in orchestral colour even more striking.

Gianandrea Noseda, Vitalij Kowaljow and the LSO
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

The icing on the cake came from Elena Stikhina and Vitalij Kowaljow, the richness and character of their voices bringing considerable depth and meaning to these intense and vivid songs. Stikhina’s anguish in Le suicidé and the nuanced way Kowaljow brought hope into O, Delvig, Delvig! were masterly and, alongside Noseda, brought subtlety and reflection to counter the aggression and sardonic bite elsewhere. The sharp and scything strings were right on the edge, with moments of sheer beauty appearing out of the blue, all mixed in with Shostakovich’s blend of dissonance and tonality – even some twelve-tone music. Noseda created a beautiful and contemplative performance of this sophisticated and deeply personal work, which might not be Shostakovich’s most popular but, quite against the odds, when you hear it performed like this, could well be his greatest symphony.

Gianandrea Noseda
© Mark Allan | LSO/Barbican

Beethoven’s Seventh usually benefits from speaking for itself, needing no artificial colouring, just the raw ingredients. On this occasion, however, Noseda added just that extra pinch of spice. And it worked. The LSO was not only buoyant, it was positively on fire. Noseda exuded enthusiasm and demanded a suicidal pace, bringing out some terrific accenting and detailing, and knowing just when to build up and die down. This was definitely not the LSO on autopilot, but real teamwork and commitment. The funereal Allegretto contrasted with a melancholy poignancy, while the finale went into overdrive. It was as if Noseda had thrown down the gauntlet to the orchestra saying “Come on, I dare you!” The swirling frenzy prevailed, crisp and precise, while the woodwinds were still able to provide lilting lyricism within the dancing fire, and when all adrenaline had finally been pumped, Noseda seemed to find a wry appreciative smile for the leader as if to say “Yes, we did it!” 

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