Kabalevsky and Shostakovich: two composers from the same city of Leningrad, born just over a year apart and yet what incredibly different sound worlds each created. Tonight’s concert was not a tale of two cities but rather a tale of two worlds: a safe one which stayed on the correct side of Stalin; and an enigmatic one which could stray dangerously close to the edge. Leading us on this journey was young Russian guest conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky.

Stanislav Kochanovsky © Marco Borggreve
Stanislav Kochanovsky
© Marco Borggreve

Kabalevsky’s opera Colas Breugnon has long fallen out of the operatic canon but the overture remains relatively popular and with good reason. Bubbling with energy and exuberance, it offers a five minute highlight of the opera’s themes. From the opening notes, Kochanovsky elicited a sharp, crisp tone from the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra while keeping the rhythm taut. With blaring brass and fun cross rhythms, Kochanovsky made this a dramatic, lively rendition of this delightful overture.

English cellist Richard Harwood then performed Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in G minor. There is an endearing link between Kabalevsky and children’s music, of which he produced realms. His concertos for piano, violin and cello, though, are far more challenging, destined as they were for more advanced students. This concerto contains many moments of mischievousness and liveliness. Possessing a sweet, intimate tone, Harwood tackled this work with consummate ease delivering the filigree with laser-like intonation. He impressed with the intensity of his vibrato on the higher notes. The NSO were very sensitive not to overpower him, even when the music grew more animated. There was a lovely moment where Harwood made the final notes of the first movement vanish into the ether, keeping us in suspense.

Harwood imbued the second movement Largo with a touching sadness that was not forced but emanated from the music itself. As the agitation subsided, Harwood spun the thread of his melody, unfurling each note with loving care. Shyly emerging from the threnody, the third movement bubbled over with effervescence. Harwood nimbly dispatched the bravura moments here while he brought the piece to a satisfying conclusion.

If the first half provided pleasant titillation, it was clear that the audience regarded it as the warm up to the main act: Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7. Called the “Leningrad” Symphony, it was not, the composer explained, “about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad Stalin destroyed and Hitler finished off”. Clocking in at one hour and fifteen minutes, it makes Herculean demands on conductor and orchestra alike, in particular the brass section.

A stirring, declamatory opening from the strings soon gave way to the stillness and tenderness of the second subject. The 12 repetitions of the “War theme” were masterfully graded by Kochanovsky starting with an innocent melody on the flute and finishing with the brass blazing forth in all their glory, a veritable cry of humanity against the horrors of war. The pizzicato at the end was nothing short of brilliant, resonating in the silence that followed.

Kochanovsky conceived the second movement as an ironic Scherzo, rejoicing in its unsettling dissonance and typical harmonic changes. The third movement lament was dirge-like with sustained chords on woodwind and brass sounding like the keening for the victims murdered by Stalin and Hitler. Even the livelier moments possessed a sinister quality, like the energy the KGB might put into rounding up their victims. The NSO imbued the sinister low notes with great menace.

The finale, with its pounding rhythm and sonic boom of the brass, had us on the edge of our seats with excitement. At times stormy, at other times violent, Kochanovsky ratcheted up the volume and excitement to an almost unbearable pitch before the victorious C major shone out and brought an end to the terrors of war.

****1