The LSO presented two lengthy, challenging works in this evening’s concert dedicated to the late Maurice Murphy, former principal trumpeter. No doubt Murphy would have been proud of the orchestra’s efforts on this occasion, with the brass section particularly excelling themselves in the Mahler.

Matt Stuart
Matt Stuart

Shchedrin’s Fourth Piano Concerto, subtitled ‘Sharp Keys’ (he has written six to date) is a strikingly unusual piece written in two movements. The romantic passages featured grotesque interspersions, which when coupled with highly virtuosic writing recalled the early piano concertos of Prokofiev, himself an accomplished concert pianist like Shchedrin.

Like his compatriot Rachmaninov, Shchedrin also incorporates traditional Russian bell-sounds into his music. The magical sounds of wind chimes, along with glockenspiel and tubular bells punctuated the second movement, while pensive repeated notes from the piano accompanied an aching string theme.

From the sensitive, rhapsodic opening to the insistent energy of the toccata, soloist Olli Mustonen maintained a lightness and ease of motion despite the music’s increasing complexity. Like any experienced intrepid adventurer, Mustonen was well prepared to tackle the demands of this pianistic summit, with several tricks up his sleeve that made light work of the music’s difficulties. At times he seemed almost possessed by a vibrating, electrical impulse, which made the music burn with a white-hot energy. He was aided but unencumbered by the musical map of the score, understandably so in this most challenging of solo works. Here the piano dominated with a brittle brilliance that was impossible to ignore.

Continuing Gergiev’s Mahler cycle was the First Symphony, written when the composer was just 24. If the Shchedrin was something of a pianistic Everest, then the Mahler more closely resembled an Alpine mountain range, its peaks and dips covered with carefully measured stamina. The symphony embodied a full-blown Romanticism from the outset, the woodwind piercing through a transparent blanket of strings. The rustic Ländler that followed had its feet more firmly on the ground. The strings dug their heels in deep before reverting to a more restrained elegance for the Trio section.

The third movement opened with Mahler’s famous minor-key distortion of ‘Frère Jacques.’ In this sombre canon the strained basses, mournful bassoons and sprightly oboe joined the funeral march steps of the ominous timpani. As always in Mahler, the tension was between darkness and light, and what followed was a moment of utmost tenderness for strings and harp that foreshadowed the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony.

The final movement, subtitled ‘From Inferno to Paradise’ ended with a riotous explosion of life-affirming light. The horns shone throughout, from the off-stage Alpine calls of the opening to the end, where they stood up, bells raised in the air.

Remarkably for Mahler, this felt like the shortest performance of the symphony in memory, a sure testament to the LSO’s ability to engage an audience, revealing the geography of the piece over a vast journey. When questioned about the work’s programmatic background, Mahler later claimed that ‘the symphony is greater than the love affair it is based on’. Based on the evidence of this performance, I am inclined to agree with him!