Two musical evenings: Shostakovich and Sibelius

I have loved the music of Jean Sibelius and Dmitri Shostakovich ever since my teens. Back then they were probably more important to me than Beethoven, and right up there with King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator, David Ackles and other rock favourites. I bought their symphonies and concertos on budget labels like Classics for Pleasure and Decca Eclipse… or even, in the case of Shostakovich, on cheap Russian labels sold in blank white cardboard covers by a (presumably now long defunct) mail order company. And while, quite naturally, my musical tastes have changed greatly over the years, Sibelius and Shostakovich have always remained among my very favourite composers; they are, for me, the finest symphonists of the twentieth century.

So the fact that I was able to enjoy their work performed live on successive evenings last week was a real treat, and yet further evidence of the magnificent musical offer London provides the year round. My first outing was to the Royal Opera House for Shostakovich’s The Nose. Written in his early 20s, it is a darkly satirical affair based on Gogol’s story about a bureaucrat, Kovalov, whose nose mysteriously goes missing, prompting investigations around St Petersburg which find him encountering a large and very motley bunch of the city’s officials and inhabitants. The story, by Gogol/Shostakovich’s admission, is a highly implausible and nonsensical affair, but under Barrie Kosky’s lively, often inspired direction, that never matters.

Martin Winkler as Kovalov in The Nose. Photo by Bill Cooper

If the opera has occasional longueurs – though they are very few – Kosky more than compensates by ensuring there’s always something eye-catching to watch. With the very large cast (77 roles!) all made up with noticeably oversized noses and decked out by Buki Shiff in a wonderfully colourful array of costumes, the visual effect is one of slightly surreal caricature. Then, of course, there is the nose itself, human-sized as it walks, runs and tap-dances its way around the city. Indeed, there was so much dancing in the production, this was not so much opera as opera-ballet.

All of this is in keeping with Shostakovich’s music: relentlessly energetic, witty, allusive, versatile and inventive. While this first opera shows him at his most audaciously experimental and sardonic, there’s still plenty of beauty to enjoy. (Even in a piece so prone to percussive dissonance, there are fugal moments when his love of Bach shines through.) The ROH orchestra and chorus, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, were quite superb in navigating the shifting dynamics and moods, while the cast, which includes the likes of John Tomlinson, Susan Bickley and Ailish Tynan, was likewise excellent in providing a foil to Martin Winkler, remarkable as the noseless Kovalov. A few critics have been just a little sniffy (sorry!) about The Nose, finding it a bit crazy (well, yes!) and overlong at two hours; the audience, however, were delighted by its laugh-out-loud humour, invention and vigour, and responded with an enormously enthusiastic ovation.

The following night, the London Philharmonic concert at the Royal Festival Hall was less boisterous but certainly no less enjoyable. Tasmin Little gave a terrific rendition of Walton’s Violin Concerto, but I was there primarily for the three pieces by Sibelius, particularly as the conductor was Osmo Vänskä, rightly famous for his interpretations of his country’s best known composer. The Oceanides kicked off the evening, giving a brief hint of the splendours that would be unveiled in the concert’s second half with the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies.

The last time I saw those two symphonies performed live, by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, the very fine playing was, for me at least, seriously undermined by Rattle’s perverse decision to begin the Seventh immediately the Sixth ended, leaving no break for applause or, for that matter, reflection; it effectively spoiled both the becalmed ending of the latter and the first half of the former. Happily, Vänskä resorted to no such gimmickry, preferring instead to play the music as Sibelius wanted. The LPO performed both symphonies brilliantly, but it was especially with the Seventh – for me perhaps the very greatest of all twentieth-century symphonies, an extraordinary and unique blend of concision and epic conception – that the conductor really displayed his profoundly sympathetic understanding of Sibelius’ music. Acutely alert to every instrument in the orchestra, he managed to make both the many lines of fragmented melody and the many different tempi so clear as to be almost transparent; yet at the same time he never once lost sight of the composer’s distinctively organic approach to musical architecture. Consequently, each symphony sounded both ‘right’ (an impression that suggests familiarity with the music) and strangely fresh, as if Vänskä has discovered something new in the score that had always been there, somehow unnoticed until now. It was one of those concerts for which I felt enormously grateful – and judging by the audience’s reaction, I was clearly not alone, as you can see in the (unfortunately blurred) photo I took, at the top of this piece.

Sadly, Vänskä’s Sibelius cycle at the RFH has come to an end, though you can listen to him conducting it here. There are still, however, a few tickets for two of the remaining performances of The Nose. I do recommend it. Here is a trailer. Or it will be live streamed on 9 November; details here.

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