Shostakovich's first and second piano concertos were coupled with Tchaikovsky's third symphony in the exciting continuation of the LSO's complete Tchaikovsky cycle, under their principal conductor, Valery Gergiev.
The concerto for trumpet, piano, and strings (Op. 35) was written in 1933, with Shostakovich playing the piano part at its première in the same year. Shostakovich's own playing was characterised by its 'anti-sentimental' approach, eschewing rubato and extreme dynamic contrasts. To this end, Yefim Bronfman as soloist provided an accordingly matter-of-fact rendition in both tone and shape, allowing this music to speak plainly. Indeed, it was this understatement and apparent effortlessness that defined the evening's music-making.
To talk of this work as a double concerto would be misleading: it is a piano concerto with an obbligato trumpet part, and in many ways, this must make it all the more demanding for the brass soloist. Instead of having an equal share of the platform, they must wait – at times for minutes on end – whilst cascades of notes fall from the piano. And then, unfazed by their virtuosic and high-pressure surroundings, step forth and deliver. Certainly, the LSO's principal trumpeter, Philip Cobb (aged just twenty-three) was the necessarily cool candidate: his fluid and sweet tone penetrated the tender core of this work, and his bravura colours crowned the concerto's climax.
Whilst this plain-talking account clarified the sometimes bizarre amalgam of thematic and stylistic sources, the second piano concerto (Op. 102; 1957) is a different beast. Although it is still a long way from the soul-searching profundity (and, yes, misery) of his other four concertos, the second piano concerto is as ironic in its presentation as in its construction. Or at least, it should be. Again, Gergiev revealed a lot of the detail, encouraging effervescent and animated playing, particularly in the woodwind. And yet this similarly literal reading seemed to miss a trick: the work's nature is always idealised, and this could have been indulged a little more, rather than inspected and handled at such an objective distance.
Tchaikovsky's third symphony (the so-called 'Polish') is his only symphony in a major key. Its epithet has stuck, albeit erroneously, ever since at its British première in 1899, the conductor, Sir August Manns, decided that the direction at the beginning of the fifth and final movement ('Tempo di polacca') was a stamp of national identity, taking the reference to Poland's national dance (the polonaise) to be the summation of some vernacular thread throughout the work. Unfortunately, there is no such connection to be found: the second movement is simply titled 'Alla tedesca' ('in a German style'); and indeed, Tchaikovsky clearly rejects the nationalistic dogmatism of some of his contemporaries (which he had indulged in his second symphony, the 'Little Russian', for example), favouring instead the European symphonic tradition of sustained motivic development.
Written during one of Tchaikovsky's happiest periods (which were few and far between), alongside his initial sketches for Swan Lake in the summer of 1875, the third symphony is not the profound emotional outpouring of his later symphonies, but rather a more simply expressive work. And this is exactly what the LSO and Gergiev delivered. Never was there enforced or contrived weight in their reading – but there was plenty at which to marvel: superbly characterful solos in the winds; a Mendelssohnian deftness in the strings. This time it was an understatement that allowed Tchaikovsky to breathe freely, as ballet and Beethoven intermingled, danced, and sang.