The great debate of our times – about how one should behave at a classical music concert – had a special resonance for me this week. A couple of days before Alex Ross gave his lecture in London on how protocol might curb an audience’s enthusiasm, I went to a concert at the Lincoln Center in New York, given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, the stunning young Russian conductor. The programme was varied and sophisticated: three pieces of music written within five years in the Thirties. The Ravel G Major Piano Concerto, one of the greatest works in that genre, was framed by two pieces by Shostakovich; his Five Fragments, with which I was not familiar, and his Fourth Symphony, with which I was.
Shostakovich spent much of his life looking in his wing mirrors, and rarely more so than in the mid-Thirties, when Pravda denounced him on the orders of Stalin. Stalin fancied he knew a thing or two about music (like Hitler, who actually did), and Shostakovich was not rash enough to disabuse him of this notion. The Fourth Symphony has ravishing moments in it, but other passages sound as though they are crying out to be piped over the PA system of a tractor factory in Sverdlovsk. I don’t think the poor old boy quite knew what he was doing at the time, and the work suffers in part from a structural incoherence. But it was played flawlessly, and the orchestra and conductor deserved the ovation they received at the end. Between the three movements, purists will be glad to hear, we sat sedately and silently.
Yet it was the performance of the Ravel concerto that now brings Mr Ross’s words to mind. It is one of my dozen or so favourite pieces of music. I could bore on about it for pages, but suffice it to say if you don’t know it, go out and listen to it. It requires an Olympic-class soloist to deal with it even half adequately and a genius to play it well. Ravel wrote it after visiting America for the first time, in 1928, and meeting Gershwin, whose work he admired and which became an enormous influence on him in this concerto and its sister, the Concerto for the Left Hand. Jazz is everywhere in the first and third movements: it seems when Americans hear the work they feel it is one of their own, and with some cause. The middle movement could not be more different. It is like a dreamscape of slightly sad but beautiful tunes that need to be played with the utmost delicacy.