Peter Connors /

Unsettling Shostakovich from Anja Bihlmaier and the BBC Philharmonic

Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2007) rejected much of her earlier work which was written to comply with the requirements of the Soviet Union, but an exception was her Suite of 1959 which she was persuaded to retain in her official catalogue. This sequence of nine very short pieces lasts about twelve minutes and provided an exuberant start to Anja Bihlmaier’s concert with the BBC Philharmonic. Originally entitled Sports Suite, it fizzes with energy and athleticism, requiring deft handling of a very large orchestra, occasionally reminiscent of her teacher Shostakovich’s lighter works with hints here and there of Stravinsky’s early ballet music. Bihlmaier brought out the colour and exuberance of this thoroughly enjoyable piece.

Anja Bihlmaier conducts the BBC Philharmonic © Jenny Whitham | BBC Philharmonic
Anja Bihlmaier conducts the BBC Philharmonic
© Jenny Whitham | BBC Philharmonic

Next came Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 9 in E flat major which was written in 1945 and confounded expectations (partly fostered by the composer himself) of a grand patriotic celebration of victory in World War 2, with choir and soloists. What Shostakovich actually produced was perhaps his most surprising symphony. It was shorter than most, classical in structure, full of good tunes and wit, and largely light in tone. Shostakovich said “Musicians will love to play it, and critics will love to blast it.” He might have added, “Audiences will love to listen to it”. They certainly did on this occasion in Manchester.

Bihlmaier’s interpretation did not shy away from the darker elements of this score. She seemed to focus on the satirical edge to the catchy melodies of the first movement. The second movement began peacefully; she gradually built up the tension before letting it relax into something rather bleak. This was one of the most unsettling performances of this work that I have heard and it made me hear this symphony in a new light. Even at its most light-hearted, in the third movement, there was “always the feeling that things could spin out of control”, to quote the excellent online notes. And yet there was plenty of fun and high spirits as well, sitting alongside more serious matters but never overwhelmed by them. The playing of the BBC Philharmonic this evening was outstanding. The many solos from all around the orchestra were stunning (as, indeed they had been in the Ustvolskaya). Particular mention must be made of the bassoon solo in the Largo fourth movement which, after a tragic lament, veered into the astonishing comedy of the finale, taking us into a zany fairground world. Bihlmaier gave individual players and sections of the orchestra well-deserved bows.

Leonard Elschenbroich © Jenny Whitham | BBC Philharmonic
Leonard Elschenbroich
© Jenny Whitham | BBC Philharmonic

Placing Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor in the second half of the concert acknowledged what a substantial, indeed symphonic, work this is. It has some of the richest sounds that the composer ever created in an orchestra, is full of glorious melody and provides a showpiece for the soloist. No wonder that it is such a favourite with audiences. The composer was longing for his Czech homeland and recollecting a lost love; it is thus a very emotional piece and the burden of its expression falls on the soloist, this evening Leonard Elschenbroich. Dvořák took great care to ensure that the orchestra does not overwhelm the soloist. Even so, I felt that on occasion Elschenbroich was too introspective and not communicating with the audience, but his interplay with the woodwinds was outstanding and his solos in the second movement quite beautiful. The last ten minutes of the concerto were utterly magical. A fine conclusion to an exhilarating concert.

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