As a big Shostakovich fan, I was very excited when I found out that his 13th Symphony ('Babi Yar') would be performed this season. It's a work that does not appear that often in concert halls, probably because it not only requires a large orchestra, but also a more-than-adept bass soloist and male chorus. Fortunately, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitri Slobodeniouk, with Sergei Aleksashkin (bass soloist) and the male chorus of the Groot Omroepkoor were more than up to the challenge.

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

The 13th Symphony is an interesting work, and not only because of how its scored. It has five movements, each of them based around poems by Yevgeni Yevtushenko; 'Babi Yar', 'Humour', 'In the Store', 'Fears' and 'A Career'. At the time Shostakovich wrote it, the use of Yevtushenko's poems, and in particular the use of 'Babi Yar' was brave, to say the least. The poems not only criticize the anti-semitic politics of Russia, they also describe what it was like to live under Stalinist terror ("They tried to kill humour, but he just gave them his thumb to his nose!", "Fears, like shadows, flitted everywhere and penetrated every floor").

Like most Shostakovich pieces, there's a lot of drama and a lot of humour. The second movement in particular, aptly titled 'Humour' is full of little jokes, not only in the poem, but also in the music. There's plenty of space for Shostakovich's spastic woodwinds and dancing strings and percussion. Shostakovich truly makes humour triumph. Dmitri Slobodeniouk clearly understood the irony and humour of the music, and under his guidance these essential elements to Shostakovich's music were emphasized and illuminated without becoming over-the-top.

Even though the most cheerful and catchy melody in the entire symphony appears in the fourth movement, the cheerfulness is misleading, the chorus actually sings "We weren't afraid to form up in snowstorms, to go off to war under fire, but at home we had a mortal fear of speaking with ourselves". This fourth movement, along with the first and the much less powerful third (the weakest movement), are the most dramatic and tragic. The lyrics of 'Babi Yar' are almost terrorizing in their depiction of the horrors of the Babi Yar-massacre, but equally strong in the solidarity that Yevtushenko expresses towards Jews. Similarly, the fourth movement 'Fears' both expresses the fear that people had in Soviet life, yet it's also hopeful and optimistic. The music emphasizes these different elements, the terror and the optimism, the fear and the solidarity, and Slobodeniouk brought them out beautifully in the orchestra. Although Sergei Aleksashkin is not the most facially expressive singer, his voice expressed every emotion that one would expect to hear in this piece. He was pitch-perfect and did not miss a note, while also clearly feeling what he was singing. The chorus was also extremely powerful and you could feel just how much all of these musicians connected to the music and understood the tremendous meaning(s) it contains. The standing ovation was much deserved.

*****