Postcard from Vienna

This week’s blog comes from Roger Pratt, recently returned from a few weeks in Central Europe, including Vienna.

I had hoped that the Vienna Philharmonic would be playing at the very grand Musikverein while I was there, but that was not to be. Instead I saw the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, a huge and very Russian sounding orchestra. The first half was Bruch’s Violin Concerto, with Julia Fischer, arguably one of the greatest violinists of the 21st century, as soloist. The Bruch is maybe hackneyed, but is still such an emotive and soul rending work, especially the slow movement.

But the highlight for me was the second half – the 13th Symphony by Shostakovich, known as the Babi Yar. It is a dark, sombre and harrowing work. Babi Yar was the site near Kiev, where the Germans in 1941 slaughtered 35,000 Jews in the space of two days. Shostakovich depicts this through his music, which is a choral symphony but featuring a bass only line-up. I counted 60 basses at this performance, and their sound authentically had that deep full Russian timbre. It is a long symphony, lasting over an hour, and was a highly emotional experience. The huge audience in the Musikverein were totally silent for several minutes after it finished. Applause somehow felt inappropriate.

You may wonder why this symphony would be so special for me. Well, I was privileged in 1987 to be asked to sing in the bass chorus of the CBSO under the baton of Simon Rattle. We performed the Babi Yar at the Royal Festival Hall in London and later went on to record it for Decca. That experience stayed with me, and hearing it done so meaningfully by a full Russian orchestra and choir, in such a sublime venue, was indeed something very special.

That was supposed to be the end of the concert, but we were given one final treat – an encore. It was Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This is one of the most ‘English’ pieces of music ever written, and was performed beautifully by the orchestra. Just when I thought I had reached my emotional zenith, having that wash over me brought tears to my eyes. Music can do that to you. It may not happen often, but when it does it truly is an unforgettable experience.