Halle Orchestra: Shostakovich’s First Symphony
The Bridgewater Hall, 14 March 2019
An evening of ebullient and bombastic music.
The Czech Czech conductor, Tomás Hanus, shepherded the Halle as they played:
- Dvorák: Scherzo capriccioso
- Chopin: Piano Concerto No.1
- Shostakovich: Symphony No.1
Probably the first work, Dvorák’s Scherzo capriccioso, was the most testing for the orchestra, because it was so incredibly mercurial. Always moving forward, constantly accelerating, never standing still. Very busybody. An ideal exemplar of music as process. And, I am sure, a devil to perform – but here the Halle excelled.
I knew Dvorák’s mother had died shortly before he wrote it and so kept on listening out for elegiac passages (which certain commentators had sworn were there), but couldn’t hear any. Mind, ascribing intention and emotion to a composer’s work is a bit like attributing human emotions to animals. It can be done, but it is a leap.
The best I could come up with was to identify a restless, distracted (indicative of dissatisfaction with the world, grieving?) quality in certain passages.
Overall, though, it was happy and joyful. At the end you pictured a conquering hero climbing a stairway to heaven. When he reaches the top step a door opens. Blinding light.
The wonderful Eric Lu was the pianist for Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 – which was actually the second concerto Chopin wrote, though the first one to be published. The second movement, in Lu’s formidable performance, had real emotional heft. It was intense and powerful: like telling someone you love them for the first time. Meanwhile, the third and final movement was a cheery and lively dance, full of Krakowiak rhythms. The circus had come to town.
Then, following a short interval, we came to the main event of the evening, Shostakovich’s First Symphony.
Written in the mid-1920s and completed when Shostakovich was just 19, it is unusual in several respects, not least in the prominence given to wind instruments: the trumpet, bassoon, flute, oboe and clarinet all play starring roles. And already, even at this early stage in Shostakovich’s career, you can see emotional depth and deft musical construction.
The symphony evokes a sombre mood at the start, brilliantly sustains it, becoming later on dramatic and raucous. It is in the third movement where Shostakovich ups his game, conjuring a Shakespearean world of grand confilict and kingly tragedy. Musically, I love the way the oboe segues into the cello. They are kindred instruments. Both can marshal dark, strange sounds.
All in all, the symphony is an incongruous juxtaposition of exuberance and pathos, and the Halle delivered a splendidly evocative and exciting performance.
Another Halle concert, another encomium.
Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.