To support his widowed mother and young sisters, the teenage Dmitri Shostakovich would spend his evenings playing cinema pianos, accompanying the silent movies that were so popular in 1920s Leningrad. He loathed the work but, as resourceful as ever, he put it to good use. As a brilliant pianist, he could practise forthcoming concert programmes, adapting the tempo of the music according to the action on screen. And he was often joined by other instrumentalists, and so once managed to smuggle in his new string trio and rehearse it as an improbable accompaniment to the antics on screen.

Andris Poga conducts the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
© Nadja Sjöström

The surreal nature of those nights found its way into his breathtaking First Symphony, a debut from a 19-year-old that stunned the world with its energy, ingenuity and breadth of imagination. And sure enough, a piano is present in the vast orchestra, often commenting ironically on the vivid musical action that storms all around it.

It must rank as the most impressive graduation piece ever submitted by a conservatoire student, displaying a mature mastery of orchestration, tight control of thematic ideas and virtuoso writing for every section of the orchestra. No wonder it it was quickly taken up by Toscanini, Stokowski and Walter. It’s a paradox that a piece that is so cinematic in scope works less well when shown on a screen, particularly a computer or TV. That’s not the fault of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic or Latvian conductor Andris Poga, making his debut with the orchestra. The music is simply too big for the constraints of streaming. An audience needs to witness it in the concert hall, but that simply isn’t possible at the moment, so we must be thankful that the RSPO was prepared to programme it.

Shostakovich requires virtuosic standards of playing from the first bar, particularly from the woodwinds, who throw snatches of themes back and forth like a rubber ball. There were some terrific individual performances here among the clarinets, oboes and flutes, a standard that was maintained throughout the performance. In the opening Allegro non troppo we heard a series of angular figures that identify immediately as Shostakovich laying down his style. Comic and playful passages suggest this is a work of youthful freshness but it’s not long before a dark foreboding enters – another hallmark that will pervade all of the subsequent 14 symphonies that will flow from Shostakovich’s pen.

Andris Poga
© Nadja Sjöström

Poga handled all these changes of mood well, particularly in the second movement Allegro, but the creeping menace embodied by unison cellos and basses in the slow movement regrettably failed to really cut through. That disappointment was quickly swept away by the blistering finale, which Poga built with emphatic authority, reaching a shattering climax. The Largo coda, which gathers up all the thematic material of the movement into a rushing torrent of unison strings, was truly impressive and brought this majestic reading to a handsome close.

Poga opened the evening with fellow Latvian Péteris Vasks’ Musica serena from 2015, an immediately accessible, tonal emotional arc that drew fine, committed playing from the strings of the orchestra. He followed it with Sofia Gubaidulina’s Fairytale Poem, written for a 1971 children’s radio programme based on the story of a little piece of chalk that dreams of drawing beautiful pictures on a classroom blackboard, when instead it is condemned to write boring numbers and simple words. Apparently, like all good fairytales, it has a happy ending, but without the spoken narrative (or programme notes) this was a superbly played but frankly baffling experience.

This performance was reviewed from the KonserthusetPlay video stream

Watch online