In “Shostakovich 360º”, Alexander Shelley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra attempted to make sense of some of the musical influences that shaped Shostakovich’s music, cleverly placing the Symphony no. 9 in the context of music by fellow Russians. Harking back fifty years from the symphony’s composition in 1945, they began with Glazunov’s gloriously lush Concert Waltz no. 1. Shelley described Glazunov as the “glue” of the programme, which explored among other things the dynamic between the outward influences of European music and a more inward Romantic Nationalism. Glazunov’s Waltz is pure Viennese froth and Shelley and the RPO took great delight in the swirling string melodies and sweet woodwind decorations, communicating a sense of fun and delight in its simplicity.

Kian Soltani
© Juventino Mateo

Shelley gave well-pitched introductions, supplying some contextual detail and listening tips with an easy manner. This, combined with the upfront and personal Cadogan Hall acoustic, made for a genial and almost intimate atmosphere, rarely achieved in an orchestral concert.

Glazunov (along with Rimsky-Korsakov) was responsible for completing Borodin’s opera Prince Igor – although the evidence for his supposed reconstruction of the overture purely from hearing it once on the piano is a little scant. In the orchestral version of the Polovtsian Dances (no. 17) there was more lush playing from the RPO, with Shelley coaxing a few hints of the wild out of the players, such as the clarinets' Wild Dance of the Men. Mostly the ensemble was tight, apart from a slightly sluggish woodwind pickup before the reprise of the Gliding Dance of the Maidens and some ragged offbeats in the concluding General Dance, that Shelley avoided feeling too routine by elegantly shaping the dynamic ebb and flow of the melodies.

Between Glazunov and Borodin, however, we had real fire and passion in the form of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, a reworking for Rostropovich of his earlier Cello Concerto. Cellist Kian Soltani gave an astonishingly commanding performance of this phenomenally challenging work, combining incredible lyricism with breathtaking precision in the rapid-fire passages, as well as pinpoint accuracy in the frequent forays to the very limits of the fingerboard. But more than this, he cut through the virtuosity and managed to allow Prokofiev’s music to speak way beyond mere fireworks, particularly evident in the second movement’s cadenza. Shelley and the RPO responded with precision and energy throughout. Soltani delivered a playfully humorous March from the Music for Children, Op.65 as a warmly received encore.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 9 came at a point when expectations were high that he would produce a celebratory victorious follow-up to the shatteringly powerful “Leningrad” and “Stalingrad” symphonies that preceded it. He himself had raised expectations, announcing he intended to write a large-scale work with chorus and soloists. In the event, however, he went for something altogether more subversive – a relatively short, purely abstract piece with much circus-style, sardonic wit, biting satire but also, at its heart, the Largo, a brief agonised lament in the form of a keening bassoon solo.

Shelley and the RPO were on great form here, with Shelley setting quick tempi and the RPO responding with accuracy and tight ensemble. The woodwind section deserve particular praise, with considerable solo work required, not least from bassoonist Helen Storey, with that heartrending plea in the Largo, as well as flautist Emer McDonough’s plaintive second movement solo. Following that emotively oppressive slow movement, the finale was suitably thrilling, with its rising sense of frenzy as the orchestra galloped to the finish line and the symphony’s sudden end.