Among the brilliant programming of The Rest is Noise festival in London, there was one concert this year that stood above all the others for me: the European première of Shostakovich’s opera prologue Orango. First discovered in an archive in 2004 by scholar Olga Digonskaya, Orango was never finished by Shostakovich, and indeed only a piano score remained. Gerard McBurney was commissioned to orchestrate the piece, and he was very much helped by the fact that a significant portion of the music of Orango was taken from Shostakovich’s earlier ballet The Bolt.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra © Benjamin Ealovega
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra
© Benjamin Ealovega

It is quite an experience for anyone in this age to be able to witness any kind of Shostakovich première, and a European première of a piece as fantastic as Orango truly was an experience not to be missed. Orango was written in one of the most exciting Shostakovich periods, namely the first half of the 1930s, the same period as the aforementioned ballet The Bolt, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, the ballet The Limpid Stream and of course the piece accompanying Orango in this concert: the Symphony no. 4. It was a period of incredible energy and contrasts in Shostakovich’s music, but it was also a time when his music was emotionally somewhat more straightforward than the music written after 1936’s official denouncement of Shostakovich’s music through the article “Muddle Instead of Music”. Shostakovich was not yet forced to hide anything in his music, and his creativity flowed like a raucous river. Nothing proves this quite as effectively as the Philharmonia’s fantastic performance of this evening’s two pieces.

Orango is an absurd piece, about a man–ape hybrid called “Orango” who was the result of a strange experiment, and who in fact used to be a French journalist. At a celebration of the October Revolution in front of Stalin’s – thankfully never actually built – Palace, Orango is presented to the crowd. The most important role in the Prologue is in fact the presenter of this celebration, sung impressively by Ryan McKinny, the only soloist who also performed at the world première. The other soloists and Philharmonia Chorus were impressive additions to the performance, which was carried by McKinny and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The music at times runs the risk of overpowering the vocalists, but Esa-Pekka Salonen made sure this did not happen, making the singer audible at all times. One of my particular favourite pieces in the Prologue, “Nastya’s Quick Dance”, was played with such fervour and liveliness that I wanted to get up out of my seat and dance around. But it was the ending of Orango that was the highlight: it had been a while since I had felt so much energy in a concert hall, and with the quality of the music and the performers I could not have wished for a better performance.

After these humorous, vivacious and rather exhausting 40 minutes, you might think that the aggression and desolation of the Symphony no. 4 might be overwhelming. To some extent it was – the music certainly sounds different when compared to Orango – but this only had the effect of adding intensity to the experience. On top of this, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia delivered one of the best performances of this symphony I have ever heard. Even though I know the piece extremely well Salonen and his orchestra brought out elements of the music I had not noticed before, the nuances were at times slightly different from many other interpretations, and Salonen’s knack for finding rhythms in places where they are not readily apparent made the performance highly dynamic.

This symphony is one of the highlights of Shostakovich’s oeuvre and of 20th-century symphonic music in general. Lasting around an hour, it is not like Shostakovich’s ironic works, nor like the more cinematic feel of his Eleventh and Twelfth Symphonies. At the same time, there is a lot of jumpy woodwind throughout, functioning as a kind of relief from the almost threatening strings and brass. It has moments of extreme beauty and moments of hope, and some consider the ending, which fades away quietly, to be a hopeful one. I consider it an aggressive and grim symphony, yet it is also one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. It is precisely this combination of aggression and sheer beauty that orchestras need to bring out in a performance, and the Philharmonia did this perfectly.

Principal bassoonist Amy Harman was incredible throughout the symphony, carrying her difficult passages with much verve. The brass section were on fire throughout the concert, nailing every note and doing it with a passion and ferocity that suited Shostakovich’s music, and this symphony in particular, extremely well. I can only hope that the Philharmonia will continue to play Shostakovich symphonies with Esa-Pekka Salonen, because if this performance was any indication, they are up there with the great interpreters of his music.