The two works performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Semyon Bychkov at the Barbican may have both been written during the Second World War, but each represented a very different outlook. Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra is a lively, catchy piece, and was played as such by the Labèque sisters and the orchestra. Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 is, however, a long (approximately 75 mins), heavy and disquieting piece that may sometimes inspire the listener to bop along their head, but has an ever-present undercurrent of anguish.

Katia and Marielle Labèque
Katia and Marielle Labèque

Martinů’s concerto is a piece that is, unfortunately, not often performed. Written in 1943, it has the rich orchestral colours and off-beat rhythms that so characterize Martinů’s music. It is fun and joyful, and quite clearly influenced by both jazz and Czech folk music. As soon as the first notes of the concerto sounded out, the richness of the piece was audible, with the two pianos and orchestra melting together beautifully. The second movement was somewhat different, starting off with alternating music by the pianos and the orchestra, and it was in this movement in particular that the jazz influences on Martinů became most obvious. However, by keeping the music played by the pianos and orchestra entirely separate for so many minutes, the piece lost some of its energy. The luscious strings in the orchestra as well as the dynamic playing of Katia and Marielle Labèque were not enough to salvage the movement. Thankfully this was more than made up for by the third movement, one that is quite similar to Martinů's later Symphony no. 4, and provided ample opportunity for the orchestra and soloists to find each other again. The wonderful rhythms characterized this movement that felt like a dance, and the Labèque sisters’ interweaved and challenging playing was brought to a rousing climax.

Just as much as Martinů’s piece was fun, the symphony we were treated to after the break was dramatic. Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 is a work with one of the greatest stories of classical music. Its performance in sieged Leningrad by what remained of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, with the addition of musician soldiers, is a moment in history that will long be remembered and retold. It is easy, with a story like that, to be somewhat cynical about the quality of the music – it was created in a time of war and at least at first sight depicts that war, and some have argued that its musical qualities are vastly inferior to the quality of its background story.

There are performances that could make the listener agree with this, as the first movement in particular can be played in a way that almost reduces it to kitsch. However, when there are performances as raw and terrifying as the BBC Symphony’s, any doubt about the quality of the music disappears. Bychkov and the orchestra placed the terror and fear of the music at the fore, and gave us an authentic and thoroughly convincing performance of a piece that is, at bottom, emotionally harrowing.

The “invasion” theme of the first movement has been the source of some musical jokes, in particular Bartók’s parody in his Concerto for Orchestra, yet the BBC Symphony showed that  we need not laugh at it. Despite its rather catchy melody, the orchestra's strings in particular gave voice to the other side of the movement, one that is intense and builds up to a startling climax. The BBC Symphony convincingly showed us that this is war music, not because it accurately depicts an invasion, but because it seems to express a sense of terror.

This was the main strength of the orchestra’s performance and Bychkov’s interpretation: there was an incredible eye for detail and subtleties that, even though they should always be present in the music, are sometimes overlooked. This performance brought to life the moving undertones of this piece in a dynamic and highly impressive performance. Last but not least, bassoonist Julie Price deserves a mention, whose performance of the bassoon solos in this symphony was stunning.