Orchestra of Welsh National Opera – Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony
St David’s Hall
Thursday 23rd November 2017
Whilst Mahler and Shostakovich might not always be expected to be on the same programme, this concert from the orchestra of WNO proved to be a spectacular double bill.
Any chance to hear songs (or lieder) by Mahler should not be missed. The lush, Alpine air he brings to his work is counterbalanced by dark, angst-riddled blasts. Yet, each compliments the other half brilliantly. Here in Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen (Song of a Wayfarer) sees the spritely, German adventurer off on his journey with many reminisces along the way. Heartbreak, the beauty of nature, misery and even more heartbreak, frequent these songs relentlessly.
They are gems of the lieder repertoire and parts would feature in his First Symphony. The history of the songs is sketchy, at best (Mahler orchestrated them a few years after completion). What you really need to bring it to life is a singer who is also expressive and also a storyteller. This was no problem for Tara Erraught, a super Irish mezzo, giving many expressions for the variety of moods. The German also felt clear and precise, never slurs or hiccups.
WNO can’t seem to get enough of Russia at the moment. In the 7th symphony from Shostakovich (dubbed the Leningrad) paints the picture of the Nazis trying to capture the city during WWII. This symphonic behemoth (the composer’s longest) has many thrilling moment and sobering reflections. The march which engulfs the first movement becomes an outrageous theme, relentlessly played out to an ear-splitting crescendo, with only stillness to follow. The end of the movement turns the march into an almost cabaret-like number, containing perhaps more mockery of the Nazis?
The third movement opens with gut-wrenching chords that could only be the Russian master. The power of this piece is its dedication to those who perished in the longest siege ever executed. The composer saw first hand the horrors, being a firefighter during the frenzied attempts to put out many infernos over the city. He brings this horror and other moods swings into this masterful symphony.
The work is as much against Stalin, as it is against Hitler. He could only get away with this by making the focus on the invaders and only allude to civil disobedience through coded language, embedded into the score itself. He may have come a cropper a few times with the Soviet authorities, but here was one of his successful work of propaganda, even believed to have been played on speakers leading to the enemy, to defeat their morale.
The final movement is the victory Russia had against Germany and is a roller coaster ride of feelings and moods. It can become an overwhelming affair, as you become so swept up in it all. The final few moments with the bass drum and timpani are outrageously loud and furious, as the audience applauded with much vigour. Conductor Tomáš Hanus has been doing wonders for WNO for his brief duration with the company.
Photo Credit: Ivan Malý