Can you write neurotic-sounding music without being neurotic yourself? I’m sure the whirring and clicking we hear in the final movement of Shostakovich’s last symphony owes much to his awareness of being surrounded by all kinds of life-support machines toward the end of his life. Similarly, when the soloist climbs to ever higher reaches in the first movement of that composer’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, I hear the sound of dental drills approaching open cavities and resonating throughout cranial spaces. At this stage the musical imagination is fraught with the anticipation and remembered experience of real pain. And yet, when performed by somebody of Kian Soltani's stature, ably supported by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Marin Alsop, the pleasure outdoes the pain.

Kian Soltani
© Juventino Mateo

This was a beautifully controlled reading from start to finish. I was particularly impressed by the seamlessness of the phrasing in the longest movement, the Moderato, as well as in the following extended cadenza. Here, there was a nobility of expression which emphasised stoical qualities of endurance, from deep chasms opening up in the ground at the start to the flautando effects in Soltani’s duet with the celesta at its close. This sounded magically like wind moaning through leafless trees in the dead of winter.

The entire work is held together by Shostakovich’s musical monogram, the D-S-C-H motif (D, E flat, C and B), which takes on an obsessive quality, reminiscent of the four-note theme in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Throughout, the contributions from the only brass player, Nicholas Mooney’s horn, acted as a superb foil to the cellist’s dark night of the soul. Together with the sharp and snappy playing of the superb LPO woodwind section and mighty timpani thwacks, Soltani enjoyed a worthy orchestral partnership. 

Framing the twitchy neurosis of this concerto were two symphonies by composers with whom Alsop feels a particular connection. Conducting from memory in both cases, Alsop’s approach was more successful in the case of Barber’s Symphony no. 1. From the very opening, with its big rhetorical gestures deployed by a very large orchestra and sense of energetic onward propulsion, she gave a highly charged performance of this somewhat neglected work. It also displayed all the elegance and grandeur for which Barber was later famed, not least in the Andante tranquillo section, where Ian Hardwick’s finely poised oboe solo, sensitively supported by harp and soft strings, provided a moment of dark-toned repose. I was repeatedly struck by parallels with Sibelius’ final symphony, not just in the attention accorded to the trombones but also by the organic coherence of the overall design.

Alsop’s interpretations of the symphonies of Brahms are highly regarded in some quarters, and she has recorded a complete cycle with the LPO. However, the first movement of the Fourth Symphony sounded very much like an unpolished diamond, energy flowing in all kinds of directions instead of being channeled through one conduit. Those early sighs from strings and their echoes in the woodwind seemed unrelated to each other. Alsop was more prepared to let the music speak for itself in the second movement, but even here there was a slightly worrying tendency to press on. This was most marked in the Finale, where she obeyed the energico e passionato marking, quickly negotiating the entry of the trombones and contrasting string pizzicati and hurrying through the important flute solo later, but hardly giving the longer paragraphs sufficient time for breath. Restless agitation is fine in Shostakovich but not in Brahms, and the compressed power she found in Barber eluded her in the final work.