Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Alpha and omega, chalk and cheese, Tom and Jerry – call them what you will, it is hard to find two pieces of music at further extremes than the ninth symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich. Yet both are revolutionary works of art: Beethoven's for being the first symphony to include a chorus; Shostakovich for his failure to provide one.
In 1945, Shostakovich announced his intention to create an epic, euphoric symphony with choir and soloists to celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany. Then he changed his mind: partly as comparisons with Beethoven were bound to be invidious, but also, as he stated: "I couldn't write an apotheosis to Stalin, I simply couldn't."
The decision cost the composer dearly, though what would one have given for a glimpse of the politburo's faces at the premiere. It is, to put it bluntly, one of the daftest symphonies ever devised, a concise, cartoonesque farrago of daft tunes that nods towards Haydn, but is less close in spirit to Shostakovich's other symphonies than to his cheerful satire of Soviet housing conditions, Cheryomushki.
Nikolaj Znaider conducted the symphony in the best way possible, with a smile on his face. The last time Znaider appeared with the Hallé it was with violin in hand, giving a scintillating account of Bartók's Second Violin Concerto to accompany Mark Elder's conducting of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Now he rounded off the Hallé's complete cycle with the Ninth, the most demanding of the lot.
Working without a score, Znaider seemed a model of composure on the platform, employing minimal gestures to maximum effect. The explosive entry of the Hallé Choir sounded like the moment the musical atom split, while the orchestra clearly relishes playing for Znaider. Already a world-class soloist, he is not yet 40. Could we have been witnessing the audition of a future Hallé music director? Watch this space.
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