If you closed your eyes, it came as if the voice of an angry, Old Testament God, had he decided to come to Sussex of a balmy May evening: Shostakovich 13th in Brighton
Written in 1962 (while Shostakovich was in hospital) for orchestra, bass-baritone and male chorus as a setting of texts by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the work casts a searing spotlight on the largest singular instance of mass execution in modern history. Over two days in September 1941, the Nazis machine-gunned 34,000 Jews at the Ukrainian ravine known as Babi Yar. Shostakovich’s setting of Yevtushenko’s angry poem “Babi Yar” broke a long-standing, officially sanctioned silence on this tragedy, though it’s a surprise that the work was performed at all.
It remained an unspoken fact in the USSR that many Ukrainians helped the Nazis carry out this act. It follows that the poem and the subsequent symphony were deemed anti-Soviet, and were best kept hushed-up. The original conductor, Mravinsky, and two soloists both withdrew from the première after pressure from the authorities, but eventually a performance, with no media coverage, was given to a select government audience.
On Wednesday 23rd May, a packed out Brighton Dome witnessed a performance of this memorial, this distillation of rage and pain, that was enthralling, shattering and flawlessly delivered.
Vladimir Ashkenazy led the Philharmonia and the Men of the Brighton Festival Chorus withSergei Aleksashkin in the solo role. Aleksashkin, who has recorded the work several times, clearly knows the score like the back of his hand. His delivery was incisive, nuanced and monolithic. The pianissimo falsetto passages in the third movement, “In the Store” – a depiction of exhausted Russian women standing in line to buy provisions – were particularly haunting, but the power-house, declamatory passages resounded like righteous orisons in every available inch of the Dome. If you closed your eyes, it came as if the voice of an angry, Old Testament God, had he decided to come to Sussex of a balmy May evening.
Ashkenazy conducted undemonstratively and authoritatively; a contrast from his usual zeal. He brought a headiness and drive to the work which belied the more common interpretation of the symphony as a world-weary elegy. Even the third and fourth movements – Adagio and Largo – possessed a relentless undercurrent that was refreshing. For the first time ever, I heard all five movements of the work as a unified whole.
The Philharmonia were flawless; conveying every nuance of the score from hushed subtlety to triple-forte terror with verve, myriad colours and a polish and unity that stood out from most orchestras I recently seen. Concertmaster Andrew Haveron’s fiddle solo in the second movement, “Humour”, was positively Mephistophelean in delivery and the brass were terrifying at times. The gentlemen of Brighton Festival Chorus outdid themselves in delivery, swagger, diction and pronunciation. From familiarity with this piece, Shostakovich’s other vocal works and in comparison with Aleksashkin, their Russian was impressive. In fact, I reckon it wasn’t even them. Yep, they were replaced by the Red Army for the night, that’s what it was.
In the first half, Ashkenazy led on pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii in a slow, two-man conga line through the violin section of the Philharmonia. Blind since birth, 23-year-old Tsujii tossed off a jaw-dropping rendition of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C Major, one of the most virtuosic of piano concerti, with a smile on his face and – it appeared – with no exertion. Throughout the performance, he would stretch out both hands to the far reaches of the keyboard and bring them back to the centre to reset himself, like some wonderful musical typewriter in a tail coat.
Along with his effortless execution and exaggerated physical tics, he is one of the more memorable soloists. He rocked back and forth completely out of time with the music and was relentlessly turning his head from side to side like a wary meerkat throughout. His ebullience however, was infectious. The Philharmonia were completely locked-in to his mad, superhuman tempi throughout and the Finale took off like a rocket which I’m sure has yet to land.