The more remote the key, the more challenging for performers and audience. Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in C sharp minor shares its key signature with piano sonatas by Beethoven, Schubert and Tchaikovsky, as well as Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. However, none of these is a late work, whereas when Shostakovich wrote his very last concerto in 1967, he was already troubled by ill health and had only a few years to live. This concerto’s shadowy sound world, with its skeletal textures, therefore requires exacting standards in performance and listening.

Karina Canellakis conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© Benjamin Ealovega

Christian Tetzlaff, performing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Karina Canellakis, drew the listener into the composer’s private world of mind-numbing pain, most particularly in the first of the three cadenzas with its sense of disorientation, the solo instrument desperately trying to find its way amongst the wisps and threads of thematic material. There is nothing remotely hummable in the piece and little to entrance the ear, despite tantalising echoes of earlier works by the composer. It is a testament to Tetzlaff’s unwavering focus and expressive range that he sustained interest throughout this skin-and-bones music. Growling horns and a persistent tom-tom in the opening movement set the underlying vespertine tone, only briefly allayed by a rhapsodic flute solo in the central Adagio, Tetzlaff bending his knees and swaying gently with every rhythmic inflection.

Even in the Finale there was not much respite from the gloom. Angry horns at the outset followed by a shrieking piccolo and insistent timpani, sounding at times like attendant gunfire, led into the long final cadenza where Tetzlaff gave a convincing demonstration of a mad and demented fiddler, with all the earlier repressed rage now spilling over. There was an added adrenaline rush in the furious chase toward the end, orchestra and soloist vying to see who could seize the reins of a carriage veering dangerously out of control.

Victoria Borisova-Ollas’ The Kingdom of Silence, which opened the concert, follows a simple trajectory. It begins in near silence with ethereal otherworldly sounds from glockenspiel, celesta and susurrating strings, building to a deafening central climax underpinned by a veritable armoury of percussion, before slowly winding down and disappearing into thin air at the close. The title is an allusion to death itself, so the piece provided an appropriate entrée to the spectral mood of the concerto.

I had almost expected more of the same in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, given the composer’s own description of it as representing “the fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal”. This was a high-voltage performance from Canellakis and the LPO, complete with a hell-for-leather conclusion, albeit with a few smudges and rough edges in the brass. Canellakis was especially good at shaping the endings of phrases, thus ensuring smooth transitions, as well as demonstrating sensitive differentiation in dynamics.

Was Fate much in evidence? To be sure, there was a great deal of expressive vitality and abundant energy coming from the podium, but I listened in vain for those tell-tale signs of the composer’s tortured soul most apparent in the yearning string elements of the opening movement.  It is here that you should feel most keenly the struggle going on between the immovable force on the outside and the spirit trying to break free. The Andantino was dispatched without much brooding and introspection, the song-like characteristics clearly to the fore, and in the following movement I was strangely reminded of the Humming Chorus from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the pizzicato strings creating a gentle blur rather than being rhythmically defined. Ultimately, this was a case of the head ruling the heart.