Earlier this week I had a conversation with a colleague, a musicologist who specialises in Shostakovich, about whether it was a good thing that the “Leningrad” Symphony was probably most people’s first serious encounter with a Shostakovich symphony. After all, it’s still a pretty problematic work, not only for political reasons, and in many ways it’s pretty untypical of Shostakovich’s art. Was it a problem, therefore, that it has formulated so many people’s views of the composer’s symphonic output?

Peter Oundjian © Dale Wilcox
Peter Oundjian
© Dale Wilcox

No matter: I’m still sold on it. For me, it’s one of those pieces that carries a palpable air of excitement to it whenever it’s played, and there’s definitely a good reason to get excited when the orchestra has the Shostakovich pedigree of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. They recorded several Shostakovich symphonies, including this one, with Neeme Järvi in the 1980s, and the last time they played it live was with Järvi in 2011. Furthermore, their last year has included not only a stonking Shostakovich 12, but also an unforgettable Fourth with Gergiev and the Mariinsky orchestra. It’s almost trite, therefore, to remark that the orchestral sound was superb throughout; full, rich and bold while also embracing huge contrasts, such as the keening bassoon at the end of the first movement or, moments later, the strings that had gone from radiating confidence to sounding emaciated and cold. The heart of the performance came in the third movement, redolent with grief and full of pathos, but with string tone that never drooped, instead sounding clean and clear, and hinting at a universe of suffering that remained unspoken.

More remarkable for me, however, was the performance of Peter Oundjian, the RSNO’s outgoing Music Director. I’ve frequently been critical of Oundjian on the RNSO podium, but tonight showed him at his best, pacing Shostakovich’s great paragraphs with steadiness and skill, even if the climax of the invasion theme tended slightly to run away with itself. The finale’s turbulent progress from uncertainty to triumph was handled with skill, despite a slightly turgid passage in the middle, and the long final crescendo tingled with anticipation. The great tidal wave of sound in the final minutes carried all before it and, importantly, the final ovation was one of the few times I’ve seen Oundjian look genuinely exhausted at the end of a performance.

He also had a good handle on Scriabin’s luxuriant Piano Concerto, bringing a touch of the dance to the finale and allowing the lovely slow movement to unfurl naturally. The orchestra played with lovely, rich string tone and also beautiful concertante touches from the solo horn and clarinet. Xiayin Wang has been a regular RSNO collaborator under Oundjian, and she played with a refreshing sense of clarity that you don’t often associate with Scriabin, even bringing some narrative power to the brief cadenzas, though not even she could completely prevent them from sounding just a little bit absurd.