Thursday, September 17, 2020

Göteborgs Konserthuset, Götaplatsen 8, Gothenburg, Sweden

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Neither Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony (1945) nor Sibelius’s Third (1907) lived up to the anticipations of their first audiences. Following the end of the Great Patriotic War, the Soviets expected triumph and celebration, a Central Committee te deum. Forty years earlier, with the Grand Duchy of Finland in the throes of insurrection and universal suffrage cut short by imperial Russia curtailing its autonomy and bent on obliterating its psyche, the public wanted an imposing Romantic banner. Instead they got something classically lean and taut. Stalin meanwhile, in Shostakovich’s words, was treated to music “dominated by an airy, serene mood”. Deemed “ideologically weak”, damned as “a rejection of great, serious problems for the sake of playful, filigree-trimmed trifles”, derided in the West as “childish” and parodistic, it ended up getting banned between 1948 and 1955.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste is one of those serious, disciplined, thinking conductors who gets to the heart of the matter with elegant control. Leaving extraneous gesture and invasive personalisation to others, he’s focussed on structure, detail and characterisation. In recent years the honesty and scale of his Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner has impressed. Shostakovich Nine was delivered with cool precision, tight coordination, and a crispness of rhythm and placement that let the music speak for itself, riddles, enigmas, subtexts and all. Nothing vulgarised, no gratuitous bombast. Though often likened to a “chamber symphony”, the score in fact prescribes as many as eighty-four strings, including ten-fourteen double basses, prompting Hugh Ottoway to suggest years ago that this explained “why a typical Russian performance sounds weightier and less satirical than western European or American listeners have come to expect.”

Saraste had far less than these forces at his disposal – yet, through meticulous balancing and spacing, paragraphing and ‘speaking’ narrative, taking his players to virtuoso precipices yet allowing them time to breathe and phrase, he managed to generate beneficially long-term weight and gravitas. As elegies go the second movement was intense, a bleak winter afternoon landscape caught in cinematic monochrome. Shostakovich’s woodwind writing in this work is prominent and exposed. The Gothenburgers could not be faulted, parading before us distinctive characters and Russian ethnic types – each with their own nuances and swells, pert staccatos and sly legatos, Mussorgskyian market women chattering in corners, cocky soldiers strutting their fortissimos, the populist “Oira” polka of the outer movements (Leonid Gakkel’s “musical emblem of the triumphant lumpen proletariat”) … Tina Ljungkvist, piccolo, compelled attention early on. Latterly Constantin Gerstein elevated the lonesome recitative of the fourth movement into one of the enduringly great bassoon solos of an era. Phenomenal control.

The Gothenburg Symphony maintains that its distinctive timbre comes from responding to the particular resonance of the 1935 purpose-built, maple-veneered hall in which it rehearses and plays. The orchestra, as it were, is the room. Saraste, for his part, is stimulated by the thought of different orchestras having different national sounds. The idea of bringing Finnish music to a Swedish orchestra (albeit one so long steeped in Sibelius), of generally getting non-Finnish orchestras to share his conception, is something which excites him. “The ‘Sibelius sound’ is very personal. It comes from the conductor. An orchestra that buys into his vision can then add further from their own subjective feelings for the music. With Sibelius this [mix/meeting of minds] is something which should always happen.”

The Third Symphony was lithe, terraced, motivic. A fresh sea wind blew through its pages, colours brushed with firm strokes on a white canvas, the structure dramatically and dynamically delineated. A first movement on the fast side of Allegro moderato, the opening string attack and woodwind response thrilling in its articulation, clarity and buoyancy. A central poem on the slow side of Andantino con moto, more quasi andante than allegretto. Saraste shaped an antique dance-aria, darkly shadowed, the cellos at Figure 6 gravelled and coppered, the seemingly secondary horn and timpani motif at Figure 7 the more mysterious for its marcato marking being quietly, repetitively pressed home, the cellos and double basses at the end throaty and full. Nicety is everything in Sibelius. A Finale tumbling inexorably – textures clean, delivery urgent, each new tint and nuance of delicately interleaved ensemble washed and primary. The long closing peroration, from palatial strings to grand tutti, woodwind and brass ringing out in choral splendour, spiralled towards a C-major mansion as heroic as anything in the Fifth Symphony, conductor, orchestra and acoustic at one. Magnificent.