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Rejoice! John Storgårds explores Shostakovich in the shadow of Stalin

Por , 25 marzo 2022

Joseph Stalin loomed large over this BBC Symphony Orchestra programme. Indeed, the concert originally bore the title “Shostakovich in the Shadow of Stalin” until the BBC wimped out and changed it to the less memorable “John Storgårds conducts music by Gubaidulina, Mussorgsky and Shostakovich”. A concert featuring composers who expressed resistance to dictatorial rule through their music, even when seeming to toe the party line, is sadly still pertinent today when what artists say – or don’t say – can land them in hot political water. 

John Storgårds
© BBC | Mark Allan

“A Soviet artist's creative response to justified criticism,” is how Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was described – reportedly by the composer, but “fake news” is nothing new – in a Moscow newspaper just before its 1937 premiere. That “justified criticism” had been the attack in Pravda, seemingly initiated by Stalin himself, on Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The Fifth Symphony was the composer’s artistic rehabilitation, bending to official demands – at least on the surface. 

Although the noisy finale seems to proclaim the triumph of socialism, audiences and commentators detected an act of resistance. In Solomon Volkov’s book Testimony, Shostakovich himself – allegedly – likened that finale to the forced rejoicing of the masses in Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. “It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing’, and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’”

Kostas Smoriginas
© BBC | Mark Allan

Storgårds, replacing fellow Finnish conductor Eva Ollikainen who sustained an ankle injury, is a fine conductor of Shostakovich, demonstrated in a searing Eleventh with the BBC Philharmonic at the Proms in 2019. At its best, this Fifth flexed its muscles defiantly. The first movement was unhurried and ponderous until Storgårds’ accelerando that ran into the snare drum invasion. Cellos and double basses snarled at the start of the Allegretto – the sardonic mood not always maintained – and the icy mood of Largo brought Sibelius to mind, especially Tom Blomfield’s desolate oboe solo. Occasionally, though, tension sagged. That enforced rejoicing in the finale needed more teeth which, thankfully, the percussion and brass eventually supplied in bombastic coda, a crowd pleaser that even satisfied the authorities.

Shostakovich felt an affinity with Mussorgsky’s music. He orchestrated his sprawling political opera Khovanshchina and here we heard his 1962 orchestration of the Songs and Dances of Death. Storgårds revelled in the score’s pungent colours, painting a vivid backdrop for the charcoal-grey bass-baritone of Kostas Smorginas. Death was given an oily characterisation in the Lullaby and Serenade, but it was the more forceful interventions in the Trepak and The Field Marshal where Smoriginas demonstrated his commanding presence. 

John Storgårds conducts the BBC SO
© BBC | Mark Allan

Sofia Gubaidulina’s music was deemed “irresponsible” by the Soviet authorities, but she was supported by Shostakovich who encouraged her to continue her explorations. Last night’s concert opened with her brief Fairytale Poem, composed for a children’s radio programme based on the fairy tale The Little Piece of Chalk. Marimba and vibraphone episodes certainly gave the feel of an animated cartoon score, aided by the unusual woodwind line-up – triple flutes and clarinets, but no double reeds. The BBC SO strings sounded austere here but played warmly in the moving encore for strings alone, Hymn by Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov, who, at the age of 84, escaped Kyiv earlier this month. Composers still labour under political shadows.

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Ver la programación
Crítica hecha desde Barbican Hall, Londres el 24 marzo 2022
Gubaidulina, Fairytale Poem (UK premiere)
Musorgskiï, Songs and Dances of Death (orch. Shostakovich)
Shostakovich, Sinfonía núm. 5 en re menor, Op.47
Silvestrov, Hymn
Kostas Smoriginas, Bajo-barítono
John Storgårds, Director
Expressive warmth from Chauhan, Hough and the BBC SO
Spectacular Vaughan Williams from the BBC SO and Ryan Wigglesworth
Killer concerto, life-affirming symphony at the Barbican
Scaling the summit: Sakari Oramo conducts Langaard
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