Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 9 and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 4 are pieces of music from completely different ends of the spectrum. The lightness of the concerto is not to be found in the monumental symphony, and the only common point is that both pieces were written by the composers at a very young age (Mozart was 21, Shostakovich 24). By programming these pieces of music together, the differences in them became all the more obvious, which could have meant that neither piece was done justice. Thankfully, the excellent performance from the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink, meant that the evening was a great success, with the elegance of the Mozart cleansing the palate for the intensity of the Shostakovich.

Bernard Haitink © Matthias Creutziger
Bernard Haitink
© Matthias Creutziger

Emanuel Ax joined the LSO and Haitink for the Mozart, and played it beautifully. It is a piece of great virtuosity, yet very pleasant to listen to and Ax’s playing was both soothing and joyful. His enjoyment during the piece was clear, and his lightness of touch combined with the warm sound of the orchestra sounded beautiful. Even though the timing of orchestra and soloist were not perfect at one or two moments, it was an organic performance. The last movement was particularly impressive, with the minuet section that breaks up this more energetic movement the highlight.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 4 in C minor is one of the most impressive pieces in his repertoire. Written when he was only 24 years old, it was not performed until 25 years after its conception. Its structure and music rely heavily on the influence of Mahler: the first and third movements are very long, and they are connected by a much shorter scherzo. The LSO almost doubled their number compared to the Mozart performance, using up the whole stage of the Barbican. As in the Mozart, the cellos were seated in the middle of the string section, and the violins were on either side of them, which created a particularly fantastic sound during the fugato in the first movement.

Haitink is a conductor well known and highly respected for a very diverse repertoire of music and he has an impressive history with Shostakovich, as evidenced not least of all by his recordings for Decca. His interpretation of the Symphony no. 4 showed that he was extremely comfortable and intimately familiar with the piece and its strengths. His interpretation was extraordinary, not least of all because he conducted the slowest version of this symphony that I have heard.

In general, I am of the fast-and-loud Shostakovich school, but this slow and deliberate performance proved to be utterly enthralling. From the first notes onwards, it was clear that Haitink and the LSO were going to present the audience with a stately and grandiose symphony. One might suspect that by underplaying the youthful enthusiasm, anguish and particularly the anger of the music the piece could not possibly be done justice, and I was surprised to notice that in fact, the piece was as powerful and impressive as ever. Listening to it was a different experience from what I was used to: instead of being consumed by a kind of terror that the music brings forth, it became a piece that I can only describe at disquieting but very powerful and proud. As if Shostakovich stood up straight, confronting Stalin – who had, as Shostakovich was writing this symphony, completely destroyed his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk with an article in Pravda – in an act of defiance. An act of slow, calm, deliberate defiance, perhaps the most powerful of all.