‘He liked to think that he wasn’t afraid of death. It was life he was afraid of, not death. He believed that people should think about death more often, and accustom themselves to the notion of it.’ This extract from The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s fictionalised account of Shostakovich under Stalin, goes some way to explaining the composer’s choice of texts for his seldom-performed Fourteenth Symphony which comprises eleven settings of poems about death, scored for strings, percussion and two soloists. Coupled with Beethoven’s life-affirming Seventh Symphony, it was given a blistering performance at the Barbican by the London Symphony Orchestra as part of its Shostakovich series under Gianandrea Noseda.
A more striking symphonic contrast would be hard to imagine, one an intense meditation on untimely death, the other, as styled by Richard Wagner, ‘the apotheosis of the dance’. If opposites attract, this was a perfect match. Whether regarded as a symphony, symphonic cantata or song cycle, Shostakovich described his Fourteenth Symphony as ‘an impassioned protest against death’. Written in 1969 while recovering from a heart attack, the work is both a tribute to fellow artists who died prematurely and a commentary on oppression, tyranny and war. Of the four poets from whom texts are drawn, Garcia Lorca was executed during the Spanish Civil War, Guillaume Apollinaire succumbed to the Spanish flu epidemic, Rainer Maria Rilke died from leukaemia, while Wilhelm Küchelbeker died in a Siberian prison. Despite its emotional demands and unremitting bleakness, this brilliantly conceived sequence of settings (in Russian translation) is by no means a cheerless experience, as given here by the superbly matched soprano Elena Stikhina and bass Vitalij Kowaljow who, together, brought a powerful dramatic focus and conviction to an inspired account. My only disappointment was having to look down at the words in the programme, when I really wanted to focus on the riveting performances on stage. On another occasion surtitles would be a bonus.
In fielding a larger string section than the composer’s own chamber-like specifications (10, 4, 3, 2), Noseda drew fulsome tone and incisive attack for the hysterical raging of Lorca’s ‘Malagueña’. No less urgent was the string playing for the first and last of Apollinaire’s settings, ‘Lorelei’ and ‘Answer of the Zaporozhian Cossack’s answer to the Sultan’, both highly charged, the first imbued with an operatic frenzy, the second biting sarcasm. Relief, if that’s the right word, arrived in the opulent string textures of ‘O Delvig, Delvig!’, where Küchelbeker’s assertions of the moral duty of an artist were emphatically rendered in rich mahogany tones by Kowaljow. He was at his most sepulchral in the opening ‘De profundis’, a mini-Requiem for the souls of a hundred Andalusian lovers in which strings were wonderfully lean in their sinuous phrases. Just as inward was the lament ‘At the Santé Jail’, its ghostly pizzicato interlude (often inaudible on CD) clearly projected and with no loss of momentum.
Stikhina tellingly held the ear with her sumptuous tone and vivid portrayals, bringing a freshly conceived persona to each of her contributions. She was coquettish in Apollinaire’s bitterly ironic ‘Waiting’ (with its haunting xylophone refrains), anguished in ‘The Suicide’ (with David Cohen’s icy cello elaborations) and seductive for the dramatic scena that is ‘Lorelei’. Its expressionistic and febrile sound world was summarily interrupted by a passage of rapt string writing, purely Wagnerian in its evocation of the Rhine. The loneliness of ‘The Death of the Poet’ was equally compelling, and the work’s ‘Conclusion’ preceded by castanets and woodblock formed an emotionally numbed epilogue, visceral strings ramming home its stark message that death is an inescapable presence in life.
But life was trumpeted in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with all the verve the LSO could muster. Noseda galvanised a remarkable performance that, in its electrical charge, could have powered the City of London for a month. It wasn’t just his edge-of-seat tempi in the last two movements, with their carefully controlled dynamics; there was the eloquent woodwind at the start, incisively delivered cadential chords – always given an extra kick by timpanist Nigel Thomas – and playing throughout of unequivocal commitment. The occasional flawed ensemble in the finale was a small price to pay for the adrenalin rush that brought many of this audience to its feet at the end. Noseda proved to be the perfect guide in this barnstorming account – unafraid to take risks and, perhaps, by extension, unafraid of life.
Elena Stikhina (soprano), Vitalij Kowaljow (bass), London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)
Shostakovich – Symphony No.14 in G Minor Op.135; Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A major Op.92
Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 3rd February 2022.
ABOVE: Elena Stikhina and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda (c) Mark Allan