The two main works BBC Philharmonic’s concert conducted by Juanjo Mena were both established masterpieces by Shostakovich. First, however, we had Rodion Shchedrin’s Dialogues with Shostakovich. Shchedrin is known in the UK for his gloriously over-the-top reworking of Bizet in his Carmen Suite. The Dialogues are quite a different thing. Shchedrin knew Shostakovich from a young age and this piece is his homage to the great master. It deploys a large orchestra in a way that recalls Shostakovich – the use of percussion, growling brass, screaming flutes, certain turns of phrase and so on. The composer has stated that he included hidden references to the Shostakovich, the composer himself and the work’s commissioner and dedicatee, Mariss Jansons. It was first performed in Pittsburgh in the USA in 2002 and has taken 15 years to reach the UK. It is a fitting tribute from one composer to another, but sometimes it felt like pastiche Shostakovich and one longed for the real thing.

Renaud Capuçon © Mat Hennek
Renaud Capuçon
© Mat Hennek

What followed was Shostakovich at his best. French violinist Renaud Capuçon joined the orchestra for Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, one of the composer’s profoundest works and one of the greatest violin concertos. It was started before the notorious Zhdanov Decree in 1948 when the Soviet authorities clamped down on many composers, including Shostakovich, who had completed the work but delayed its first performance until 1955, after the death of Stalin. The difficult circumstances in which the composer found himself are evident in the concerto. Capuçon’s performance was stunning. The demanding solo part hardly gives the violinist time to pause and Capuçon used his virtuosity to enhance the power of the work.

The first movement is a Nocturne, but no dreamy, moonlight reverie. The darkness is sinister; dangers lurk in the shadows. Capuçon’s beautiful tone in his long melodic lines emphasised the tragic atmosphere. The following scherzo is a grim dance, sometimes suggesting a dislocated traditional Russian dance. There was no light-hearted relief here. At times one felt that the orchestra was trying to force the soloist to do its bidding and here the D-S-C-H motto (referencing the composer’s initials in their German transliteration) appeared for the first time, as if in protest. The third movement Passacaglia, beginning with a hymn-like theme, is even more disturbing, which Capuçon played with great intensity. For the first time in the concerto a little sweetness or sunlight appeared, but not for long. This led into the soloist’s stunning cadenza and the final movement Burlesque, another serious, intense movement. If there were occasional hints of the circus it was an enforced laughter with sinister, threatening clowns.

How is it possible to follow such a piece with more music? After the interval came Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 15 in A major, composed in 1971. By this time artists had more freedom than in the 1940s, but the Soviet Union was still a grim place. Shostakovich uses a large orchestra, but very sparingly. For much of the symphony only small groups of instruments are used together. The beginning of the work is startling, with notes from the glockenspiel followed by a solo flute introducing a brittle sound world that is quite unprecedented. And then there are the curious quotations from Rossini’s William Tell Overture that somehow feel right. The composer himself said that he could not explain why they were there but he couldn't leave them out. It felt as if he was trying to smile but had lost the ability to do so without fearing reprisals.

The slow second movement is the tragic heart of the work and it was this aspect that Mena emphasised – or was I still under the spell of the Violin Concerto? Again there were many individual contributions from orchestral players, none finer than the intense cello solo that alternated with the sombre brass chorale. At times the music seemed about to stop. When the whole orchestra played together for the first time the effect was shocking. The third movement, a scherzo, was disturbing with its sardonic humour and the finale returned to the tragic atmosphere of the second movement with another quotation – Wagner’s fate motif from the Ring. This led to one of the most startling endings of any symphony: strange clicks and pops from the percussion over a long held chord in the stings, which have been said to relate to the sounds of the medical equipment that had surrounded the composer when he was a patient in a sanatorium. Sometimes this symphony feels uplifting. In this performance I felt that it summed up an elderly, ill composer’s lifetime of hardship.

****1