Two great historical events cast shadows over Russia’s cultural heritage. The confrontation with Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino in 1812 and the siege of Leningrad throughout 1942 – 200 years ago and 70 years ago respectively – loom large in everything from Russian literature to fine arts.
In its series entitled “War and Peace” last week the Southbank Centre provided a grand overview of the two anniversaries through music. The artistic lead was taken by conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who brought together the British and Russian orchestras with which he is most closely associated to play in three concerts, each comprising a mix of Russian and British music – the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the first, the Russian National Orchestra at the second, and players from both on stage at the same time (quite a squash) for the third.
It is the kind of gesture than can end up little more than an ambitious PR exercise, but in this case the quality of the results said otherwise. By the time the orchestras were alongside each other for the decibel-beating final programme, the hugely impressive playing lived up to its billing as a big event.
Russian composers have not held back in their depiction of the country’s two epic battles. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, with its extra brass band and cannon-fire, is a byword for orchestral excess. Jurowski, as might have been predicted, handled it with cool-headed precision, and it was comical to see a single musician, calmly seated at a keyboard, unleashing the thunder of the cannons with a stroke of his forefinger. To go immediately from that to Britten’s intimate Lachrymae for solo viola and strings was like the calm after the storm, Lawrence Power finding deep contrasts in the understated viola part.
If any work in the Russian repertoire outdoes the Tchaikovsky for overkill, it has to be Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7, composed in Leningrad during the siege. As ever, Jurowski refused to indulge the excesses in this huge symphonic juggernaut and his brisk, no-nonsense performance kept the music taut and cogent. What really made this concert stand out, though, was the exceptional virtuosity that he drew from the combined orchestras. It really did sound as if every player had been galvanised by the occasion.