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Janáček, McCabe and Shostakovich

John McCabe: Symphony, Labyrinth (2007) (London première)


Janáček: Taras Bulba (1915/1918)


Shostakovich: Symphony No.5 in D minor, op.47 (1937)


Kensington Symphony Orchestra/Russell Keable

St John’s, Smith Square – 23 November 2009


Continuing the celebrations of John McCabe’s 70th birthday, the Kensington orchestra, reknowned for its pioneering work for and on behalf of English music, tonight gave the London première of McCabe’s 7th Symphony.  The Symphony, Labyrinth, commissioned by the BBC for the Liverpool Philharmonic, and premièred by them in September 2007, was part of a varied and fascinating programme.


Labyrinth is a single movement which doesn’t follow any accepted forms – such as sonata form or rondo etc. This is McCabe in free association, and what a piece of free thinking this is. Starting with a solo piccolo, fearlessly played by Dan Dixon, McCabe gradually gathers his forces, starting with muted strings – his usual interest in string sonorities to the fore here – and glockenspiel, later muted brass fanfares, and the texture fills as the music breaths longer and longer lines, derived from the earlier piccolo music. As the music strives forwards, with the help of some beautiful woodwind writing and an important solo for the alto saxophone, it craves release and ultimately finds it in a scherzo of great energy and power. But the ending is withdrawn and enigmatic. The argument isn’t settled, there is more to be said, but not here; a dissonant chord on lower strings and brass leaving us questioning, and waiting, in anticipation of more. 


For me, Taras Bulba is Janáček’s masterwork, and although any piece whose movement titles all contain the words “the Death of…” might seem somewhat morbid, this is one of the most life affirming works I know. Based on the novel by Gogol this instrumental depiction of three important scenes from the book are quite fantastic in their scope and outlook, embracing passion and vision, betrayal and, ultimately, hope for a better future. Using a huge orchestra, as did McCabe, but adding organ, Janáček fills his canvas with the boldest of orchestral colours, from the most delicate solo oboe line to violent fanfares from trombones. Here Janáček shows exactly what he is capable of in an exciting and continually fascinating work. Keable and his players gave a stunning account, bringing to life every facet of the story, with the most uninhibited playing and a forthright approach which suited the music perfectly. The snarling muted trombones were especially sinister.


Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, the supposed “Soviet Artist’s reply to just criticism” was equally well performed. The first movement was perfectly placed, with a winsome second subject and a real storming, jack–booted, march in the development section, a fine climax and a delicate coda with celesta and solo violin. The lumpy, even lop–sided, scherzo was given tongue–in–cheek, just as it should be, and the humour was very well pointed throughout. The huge slow movement was intense and not too romantic so as to go over the top. Keable kept a firm hand on things and made the most of the gorgeous string writing and lack of rhetoric, building a strong, almost religious, feel into the music. This was truly the heart of the work. The finale, with its several increases of tempo as the music moves towards the climax was well handled, it is very difficult to grade these changes for they are subtle and cannot, indeed must not, be over done otherwise the movement sounds muddled and rushed. Keable understood this and paced the music very well indeed so the climax, when it came was stunning and surprising rather than the reward at the end of a race.

In Testimony, which I am convinced is Shostakovich’s autobiography, he said of the finale of this Symphony, “The rejoicing is forced, created under a threat… It’s as if someone was beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shakily, and go marching off muttering, ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’ This was how Keable viewed the coda to the work, and it was a hard won victory which he prised from his orchestra, and we were beaten with the harsh blows of the timpani. This was magnificent stuff indeed.


If I have one quibble it is with the hall itself. The sound in St John’s is wonderful but it is too reverberant when it comes to counterpoint, and dense counterpoint in particular. Parts of McCabe’s and Shostakovich’s Symphonies suffered from this muddy sound and there was some loss of detail, especially the bells in the McCabe, and some woodwind in the Shostakovich. For the latter this wasn’t too bad for we all know the work well from various recordings and frequent performances, but the McCabe suffered as, for many, this would have been a first hearing. However, the performance was strong enough to convince us of the stature of McCabe’s work, and hopefully, it will make many who didn’t previously know his music, go out and investigate what is available on disk.


Bob Briggs