There are few conductors who lead an orchestra through Shostakovitch's Seventh Symphony this calm and highly focused. Fewer still can rely on their orchestra to such an extent that they can stop conducting entirely and pause to allow the orchestra's musicians to develop stretches of the music by themselves. With his take on Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony,  Mariss Jansons proved once more that not only is he one of the best Shostakovich performers, but also one of those conductors with incredible charisma.

Mariss Jansons © Marco Borggreve
Mariss Jansons
© Marco Borggreve

With the surprise piece of the evening - Memorial to Lidice by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů –  the Bavarian Radio Symphonie Orchestra indicated that this was going be a very thought-provoking night. Martinů wrote the piece during the Second World War, when German soldiers obliterated the Czech village of Lidice. Before the background of those events the piece, with its introverted, extensive sonic structures, appears in the form of a lament that is interspersed by frequent and fierce orchestral eruptions. The BRSO's strings in particular contributed to the impressive reading of Memorial to Lidice with brilliant but heavy tone. Jansons developed the elegiac passages with lyric calm, then let them meet the orchestral eruptions with thundering force. Even though the title and background of the composition had not yet been revealed at the beginning of the performance, Jansons' reading left no doubt: this was a musical staging of great anguish and deep grief.

In this regard, Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony is less clear-cut. Like the opening piece, it was written during World War II, and the Invasion Theme in particular is regarded as opposition to German fascism. It hosts, however, a great many different layers, underlined by Shostakovich's own statement that this symphony is set against any form of fascism - not only that of the Germans, but also that of Stalin. Appropriately, Jansons did not limit the orchestra to mere war description and celebratory victory hymns but coaxed out all the fine detail of the score. He created a strong pull from the Invasion Theme, introduced by jaunty, almost bold woodwinds, to monotonously stomping motifs. He led his musicians to the pinnacle of musically depicted violence with the tiniest of gestures, and the orchestra followed eagerly with great precision.

Once arrived at this crest, the brass belted out the theme with a cold, metallic sound over and over again. This was the only occasion in the entire work that Jansons used bigger gestures to spur on his orchestra to an even stronger performance, leading it into an ear-splitting climax that seemed to press the listener into their seat with its sheer expressive vehemence. After these staggering passages laden with emotion the admirable ease with which the orchestra mastered the narrative passages and excellent solos, for which particular mention must be made of the second movement flute solo as well as the brass. The BRSO gave a compact, precise account of the symphony and played with great dedication to an uncompromising interpretation that always went the extra mile for expressive impact. At no time did the opening of the second movement give the impression of a winsome waltz even though Jansons directed it with the necessary dance-like lightness. Instead its deeper layer was brought out magnificently, giving it the appearance of a bizarre danse macabre lying underneath a threatening veil of tension.

The oboe solo pondered about past occurrences like a lamenting human voice before the wind chorale and following strings paved the way for the evening's emotional climax. With strong parallels to Mahler, this section revealed the hardship and austerity of the country marked by war. The musicians virtually threw themselves into the stark dissonances, giving it an increasingly stronger effect with wailing strings.

The glowing victory hymn, an inevitable necessity to keep up appearances, was so much more in Jansons' hands that plain pomp. It was a cunningly staged victory celebration devoid of all honest joy. One would not dare to imagine what might have happened had the Soviet officers recognised the biting criticism of the political system that lies at the heart of this symphony. Jansons' reading of the composition painfully brought out just how ambiguous this work really is. It is so much more than simply a depiction of war and peace, it is a manifesto against all evil in this world.

Mariss Jansons certainly is one of the best conductors and possibly the best with Shostakovich of our time - today's concert has impressively proven it. The stoic calm with which he shone a spotlight onto even the smallest subtleties and lead the75-minute symphony to the brink of its abysses was more than stunning.

 

Translated from German by Hedy Muehleck.

*****