“An impassioned protest against death,” is how Shostakovich described his Fourteenth Symphony. Written at speed in 1969 when the composer was in hospital in Moscow after his second heart attack, you could argue that it represents music’s most disquieting confrontation with mortality. Part symphony, part song cycle for soprano and bass soloists, strings and percussion, it’s an unremittingly bleak piece that sets 11 poems about untimely death by poets who themselves died young. There’s little attempt to console, no suggestion of transcendence, only a numbing and pervasive sense of finality. For some, it is Shostakovich’s greatest score, though the emotional demands it makes on audiences and performers alike can make it uncomfortable listening.
Gianandrea Noseda’s performance with the London Symphony Orchestra, part of a current Shostakovich cycle, was typically uncompromising: a deeply unsettling exploration of a desiccated sound-world that eerily hovers at the limits of existence. Restraint and violence were garishly juxtaposed. String phrases seemed to echo across distances and abysses, and skeletal xylophone taps ushered death into taverns and on to battlefields.
The soloists, superbly matched, were Elena Stikhina and Vitalij Kowaljow, their singing hovering between lyricism and expressionism. The gabbled colloquy between the suicidal Lorelei and the bishop who desires her was deeply unnerving. Kowaljow’s deliberately bleached tone spoke volumes in the opening depiction of the mass graves of dead lovers, while the extraordinary beauty of Stikhina’s voice offset the bitter ironies of Waiting and the sheer horror of The Suicide.
Its companion piece was Beethoven’s Seventh, the absolute antithesis of the Shostakovich in every way, a celebration of life and vitality that embraces Dionysian extremes of elation and joy. Noseda propelled the score forward with seemingly boundless energy, pressing urgently through the slow movement where some conductors are apt to hold back. The sheer exhilaration of the finale occasionally came at the price of textural clarity, but elsewhere the playing was beautifully focused, the all-important woodwind solos elegantly honed.