The Hallé Orchestra brought this season’s focus on Shostakovich to a fittingly dramatic climax with a performance of the great Soviet composer’s powerful eighth symphony at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.  

Earlier in the season, audiences were treated to innovative and highly accomplished performances of Shostakovich’s fourth and fifth symphonies. A common thread throughout has been the sensitivity and expertise with which these memorable evenings were programmed, and this was no exception.

First up was Bach, a favourite of Shostakovich, and his Keyboard Concerto No 1 in D minor. Throughout, the strings were on point and orchestra and soloist Charles Owen delivered a masterclass in harmony. Owen’s performance at the keyboard delighted the audience, demonstrating the kind of graceful fluidity in the fast movements that sets the pulse racing, while still exhibiting an elegant pathos during the movements’ tonal changes. Based on this performance it’s easy to see why Gramophone Magazine  describes Owen as “one of the finest British pianists of his generation”.

It’s not certain when Bach wrote the piece but it was certainly composed for performance in Leipzig, in gardens during the summer and in coffee houses during the winter. Felix Mendelssohn played it in the city in the 1830s and it was Mendelssohn’s choral interpretation of Psalm 114 – ‘When Israel out of Egypt came’ – that was up next on the programme.  

Psalm 114 recalls the exodus of the Jews out of Pharaonic slavery and their journey to the Holy Land, Red Sea parting and all. To acknowledge such grand themes Mendelssohn scored a suitably grand choral piece requiring not a little chutzpah to pull off. Luckily this was a challenge which the massed ranks of the Hallé Choir and the Hallé Youth Choir were more than capable of meeting.

The combined cast, in excess of 200 performers, lent the stage at the Bridgewater Hall a suitably DeMillian quality and, God be praised, all took to their Biblical task with great skill and gusto. The splendid performance from the choir, masterfully directed, was a triumph of power and projection that must have echoed all the way to the Kingdom of Heaven itself.

Mendelssohn was heavily influenced by Bach and in turn both men greatly influenced Shostakovich. This influence, along with a thoughtful grounding in the context and history of the last item on the programme, were explained after the interval by Sir Mark Elder, music director at the Hallé. These talks have been a feature of this series, which has been all the better for it, and it made for an effective primer before a fine performance from both orchestra and conductor.   

“Life is beautiful” said Shostakovich summing up his eighth symphony, written in the summer of 1943, perhaps suggesting there was hope of a brighter future for a Soviet Union still mired in total war. However the authorities in Moscow didn’t see things that way; where some chose to see optimism they saw downright despair and that wasn’t what the pigs in the Kremlin wanted at all. For once I’m tempted to agree with them.  

The eighth symphony is vast and powerful, dark and deep. One must be a strong swimmer to venture into its waters and not surrender to the icy blackness that at times threatens to overwhelm all those who enter. That said there is a definite poetry to the grieving of the instruments, reminiscent of Akhmatova: ‘The Resurrection of Ravings, though the hour has not yet struck…No measure in my terror.’   

Given the turbulent times, for both the composer and his Motherland, it was no wonder Shostakovich called this his requiem. If requiem it be then it’s surely one for all those who died not only in the Great Patriotic War but also in the long reign of terror that was Soviet government. 

As Sir Mark pointed out, Shostakovich took Mahler as his mentor for the structure of the symphony. The long, slow first movement saw the music build in both power and threat and was followed by a macabre, sarcastic scherzo in which it seemed he again mocked the absolute devotion of the powerful to power, and their love of violence.

Shostakovich filled the symphony with memories of Bach’s ideas and techniques; cannons appear where everybody was doing the same thing but not at the same time with the effect of producing a strange melodic but discordant quality that was, over time, deeply unsettling.

Movements three, four and five ran together with the mood moving between an incessant rhythmic thunder, a fusion of the sounds of mass violence and mass production, and long, melancholic sections in which compassion and beauty were smuggled to the audience.

But even here the foul, corrupting breath of the Great Red Dragon lingered in a notational miasma; the dull armoured scales on its massive body slowly rising and falling in time with the music. Bury your dead comrades, but never forget the dragon merely slumbers and soon it will awake.   

As mentioned, some believe that the end of the eighth indicates that there is peace on the horizon, that there is reason for optimism. Perhaps that is so, but ultimately comrades that’s for you to decide.  

By Alfred Searls

Main image: The Bridgewater Hall by Joel Chester Fildes


The concert is available on BBC iPlayer