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10 Aug 2014

Berio Sinfonia, Shostakovich, BBC Proms

Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.

Luciano Berio : Sinfonia, Dimitri Shostakovich : Symphony no 4. Vassily Petrenko, European Union Youth Orchestra, London Voices, BBC Prom 26, Royal Albert Hall, London 5th August 2014. A review by Mark Berry-


Petrenko did a reasonable job in Berio; however, I could not help but wonder how often he had conducted the work before. It was certainly a swift, driven reading, but that seemed to reflect a head more than usually stuck in the score (understandable, given the circumstances).The opening of the first movement was promising indeed: aethereal, its harmonies unmistakeably announcing an ‘Italian’ flavour - both Dallapiccola and Nono springing to mind - whatever the undoubted internationalism of Berio’s outlook. It is a great piece for the European Youth Orchestra, not only in terms of that ‘internationalism’ but also because, like Mahler (if only we could have had his music in the second half!) a large orchestra is employed, but sparingly, smaller ensembles drawn therefrom to wonderful, magical effect. It was a pity Petrenko drove so hard, but the movement recognisably remained itself.

The second movement came across almost as a ‘traditional’ slow movement, albeit again with sparing, almost soloistic use of the orchestra. An appropriately geological and river-like sense characterised the third movement. Mahler’s Second Symphony was the bedrock, of course, but I was also fascinated by the thoughts of memory and its tricks that the Rosenkavalier references provoked. If anything, Strauss and Hofmannsthal proved the more resonant on this occasion, though whether that was simply a matter of my frame of mind, or was in some sense owed to the performance, I am not sure. At any rate, the combination - and conflict - between the EUYO and London Voices made it seem, especially in the context of Petrenko’s once-again driven tempo, almost as though one were trapped within a human mind, and a witty one at that. Mathieu van Bellen offered an excellent violin solo. The typically varied vocal references included one to ‘Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony’, concluding with a ‘Thank you, Mr Petrenko’. Amplification perhaps seemed a bit heavy in the fourth movement, though perhaps it was more a matter of the acoustic; nevertheless Berio’s imagination continued to shine through. I wondered whether the final movement might have smiled a little more - no such problem with the voices - but all was present and correct, and often rather more than that.

As for Shostakovich: well, his apologists hail this symphony as a masterpiece, but an opportunity to hear it had the rest of us wish it had remain ‘withdrawn’, not on account of any dangerous ‘modernism’ - Stalinist ‘socialist realism’ truly was insane! - but because it is such a dull, frankly un-symphonic work. For the most part, Petrenko and the EUYO did all they did to convince, although string playing sometimes went awry. The first movement opened with Lady Macbeth-style Grand Guignol, perhaps more interesting than anything that followed. Precision and attack were impressive: there was a chilling mechanistic quality to the performance, but alas, the work ensured that returns diminished, Shostakovich’s threadbare invention rendered all too apparent after a while. The second movement is at least shorter, but from the outset, one felt, as so often with this composer, that one had heard it all before, and it still seemed too long.

Oft-drawn comparisons with Mahler seemed as incomprehensible as ever. They made a little more sense in the final movement - so long as one bore in mind Boulez’s observation that Shostakovich offers at best a ‘second pressing’ in olive oil terms - but surely nothing justified the lack of variegation and indeed the sheer tedium of this piece. Petrenko and the orchestra rendered the movement’s Largo opening nicely creepy. Various woodwind took the opportunity to shine within the confines of generally unrelieved lugubriousness. There could, however, be no papering over the formal cracks. How I longed for a little invention: Haydn, Webern, Mahler, Berio, just about anyone! Is it not about time that we abandoned puerile Cold War attitudes and considered whether this music is actually any good, rather than merely sympathising with the autobiography of an alleged ‘dissident’?

Mark Berry

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