Sitting squashed between the ribs of the Sheldonian I try and imagine the parental mind brave enough to take a young baby to hear Shostakovich 7. More than that, I marvel at the parent capable of keeping their child quiet for the full hour and a half, bar two impromptu crying-baby solos duetting the woodwind in the second and fourth movements. Parents of this child: I salute you.
The Oxford University Orchestra was similarly impressive, and (thankfully) rather different in acoustic output. This mammoth piece, conducted by Peter Stark, was crystal clear and slipped beautifully between the strange emotional contortions of Shostakovich’s score. The third movement was perhaps the highlight, combining loneliness, anger and ridged determination. I was repeatedly struck by the easy yet haunting warmth of the flute solos, which were some of the most beautiful moments in the performance.
The softer moments of anguished remembrance and forlorn song were more eloquent than the dramatic, combative fortissimos which, in the Sheldonian’s absorptive architecture, were sometimes so earth-shatteringly loud it was paradoxically difficult to hear, but then again there was something appropriate in that difficulty.
Shostakovich Seven is a piece that only really works in concert. Whilst many works have a dual life on the stage and the recording, I can’t imagine many people in their kitchen listening beginning to end to 90 minutes of suffering, pain, disturbing humour and joviality all rolled into one. One of the piece’s most powerful characteristics is its severe ambiguity, its ability to morph between supposedly opposed emotions. The bassoon solo, for example, of the first moment (which was expertly played) achieves an unnerving stillness that should be at odds with the wriggling melody. And of course this same ambiguity allowed Shostakovich himself to escape the full force of Soviet denouncement. The OUO’s performance was a staggering feat that managed to find clarity in complexity and joy against deep pain.
On the way out I drop a pound into the collection for the orchestra’s upcoming tour to Japan, to do the same (maybe with more than a pound) visit http://ouo.oums.org/japan-project/