You’d be hard pressed to find two more opposing composers than Wagner and Shostakovich, the former famous for his operas, the latter for his symphonies. And yet, just as Wagner attempted an all-embracing view of art with his idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, so in his Symphony no. 15 in A major Shostakovich seems to be emulating Mahler’s belief that a symphony needs to encompass the whole world. For this work casts the net very wide, excavating not only the composer’s previous compositions but also, in its quite deliberate quotations, musical inspiration from Rossini to Wagner himself and Rachmaninov. Nor is the first-movement reinvention of a magic toyshop all that original: Tchaikovsky tapped into similar veins several generations earlier with his Nutcracker.

Andris Poga
© Jānis Deinats

The sheer variety of Shostakovich’s musical material was sensitively conveyed in this performance by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, conducted by Andris Poga: the circus atmosphere in the opening movement with its toy trumpet fanfares, the parade of the percussion and the marching tune towards the end. Poga’s attentive shaping extended through the slow movement, with its alternating Adagio and Largo sections, distinguished by a fine cello solo from Christopher Franzius, who gave full expression to the sense of anguish, and by Roland Greutter’s violin, struggling to break free of all earthly constraints in the ethereal regions above the stave. Autobiographical tokens came through the pall of foreboding in the strings, so strongly reminiscent of the composer’s Eleventh Symphony, as well as in the role of the celesta, picking up echoes of the Largo from the Fifth. 

Sadly, in this acoustic imperfections very quickly became magnified. Despite Poga’s precise beat and flowing arms, there were simply too many instances of poor woodwind and brass chording. The solo trombone had a particularly bad night, as did his colleagues in the lower brass, though the grinding dissonances in the central climax of the Finale were suitably weighty. At the end of this symphony, which continues to mystify and unsettle so many, there was a barren landscape bleached of all colour, the clicks, rustling and whirring from the percussion all a reminder, as in Prospero’s words, that “our little life is rounded with a sleep”. 

As she stands on the brink of sexagenarianism, Nina Stemme still has an immensely powerful voice, the burnt ochre qualities of her chest register married to a smoky richness of tone elsewhere. For Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder she was placed within the orchestra close to the woodwind section, yet instantly commanded attention as a reincarnation of Brünnhilde. That was part of the problem here: it was a largely operatic performance of five songs which, for the most part, are inward-looking, Stemme’s sometimes heavy vibrato clouding the articulation of her words. Her dramatic approach worked best in Stehe still! with stormy surges of feeling as well as in Schmerzen, where the voice filled the hall for “Wie ein stolzer Siegesheld!”. I missed more of the throbbing quality in the accompaniment at the start of Im Treibhaus, Poga never quite capturing the febrile atmosphere of the hothouse, and Stemme herself was somewhat prosaic in the reference to yearning desire in “Weit in sehnendem Verlangen”, though in the final stanza there was a beautiful matching of their reduced dynamics.

Poga’s predilection for bold primary colours, already evident in a matter-of-fact rendition of the Meistersinger Prelude, worked against the inherent spirit of Träume, where the inwardness of the second act of Tristan und Isolde is already foreshadowed. The woodwind and brass were frequently too loud for the whispering strings, the horn solo much too intrusive for music that simply needs to float and entrance.