Prom 8 Review

Shostakovich: Symphony No 4 & Brahms Violin Concerto, Viktoria Mullova (vln), BBC Philharmonic, Vassily Sinaisky, RAH, 20 July 2000 (MB)

This was the first of this year's Proms to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Shostakovich's death. Playing to a capacity house, the BBC Philharmonic under Vassily Sinaisky delivered a gut-wrenching performance of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, one that sprung fireworks during the first movement and laced power and bleakness during the Mahlerian finale. The BBC Philharmonic played like demons.

It is not difficult to see why the Fourth was shelved in 1936 and had to wait until 1961 for its premiere. Musically, it is a titanic work with two vast outer movements framing a small schizoid scherzo. But it is the work's emotional undercurrents, the bleak C minor ending that dissipates into unrelieved darkness, that made the work so problematic for Stalinist sensibilities. It is anything but a portrait of the socialist realism demanded of the time, and so unlike any of its predecessors. Not until the Eighth did Shostakovich again plummet tragedy so compellingly.

Sinaisky made the ending as dark as possible. Low strings ebbed their final notes as if sunlight had disappeared for an eternity. A muted trumpet chimed. It was almost the last thing you heard before the sound of the vast orchestra was smelted into a cauldron of despair. It was not all like this, however. During the first movement the BBC Philharmonic had danced their way through the fugue. Starting on violins and working its way through violas, cellos and basses the figuration was phenomenally well articulated. It was as if a tornado had torn through the orchestra. With woodwind and brass bleating and shrieking it lead to a climax of Gargantuan proportions. Sinaisky always drew splendid brass playing from the orchestra - playing that seemed genuinely brutal and overwhelmingly dissonant. The scherzo was pallid by comparison, but justifiably so. The finale recalled the Mahler of the First Symphony more clearly than I have previously encountered, and the final climax teetered on the brink of inexorability. This was an exceptional Fourth by any measure.

Earlier, Viktoria Mullova had been the soloist during Brahms' Violin Concerto. Appearing on stage in a dress that made her look like a mermaid, it seemed oddly appropriate. This performance was as cool as the sea, and missed much of the lyricism of the work, notably during the slow movement. Mullova looked on as the oboist weaved her notes, but in the end seemed quite unable to match Jennifer Galloway's beauty of phrasing. Where Mullova scores is in the purity of her intonation. You would have to search very far indeed to find another violinist who can match the sheer beauty of sound she draws from the violin. The high harmonics on the E string were not just perfect, they were positively seductive. Technically, she was faultless, although I have heard many more moving accounts of this great work.

This evening's concert was a clear triumph for the BBC Philharmonic. For the orchestras who follow, they have a clear challenge ahead them.

Marc Bridle

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