Michael Houstoun
Michael Houstoun - Reviews

From Russia with understanding

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concert, 5 August 2011
Reviewer: John Button
The Dominion Post, 8 August 2011

'Surely no musical work has had a history quite like that of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony "Leningrad". For most casual observers, since it first made its appearance during the siege of Leningrad in 1942, it has symbolised the heroic struggle of those who suffered; an act of creation by a composer living through the horrors. Shostakovich appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a fireman's helmet - he was, nominally, a volunteer fireman - and the performances of the symphony in America, after the score had been hurried there, became media events. After the dust settled, the symphony was dismissed by many as public relations hype, and judged to be of little musical value.
Now, thanks to a superbly thought-through and brilliantly executed performance conducted by the young Russian music director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko, we can hear that this is a finer work than its reputation suggests; indeed, the adagio is, surely, one of the finest movements in all 15 Shostakovich symphonies. Yes, the symphony has its longeurs, and that somewhat trite theme in the first movement still confuses some listeners. And there is the double meaning now seemingly everywhere in Shostakovich's works.
What no-one would question, I suggest, is the quality of the young Russian conductor. With a superb technique, and a control over dynamics that is breathtaking, he missed no tricks, and the orchestra gave him - a few understandably wobbly moments notwithstanding - tremendous playing.
The Rachmaninoff Fourth Piano Concerto that opened the concert is also misunderstood. Not as effusively romantic as the first three, it is seen by many as a diminution of the composer's powers. It is not a heart-on-the-sleeve work, and Houstoun is not a heart-on-the-sleeve player, so with Petrenko fully understanding, its slightly more prickly style reveals that it might be the finest concerto of the four. '


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