The RSNO and Conductor Laureate Neeme Järvi attracted a very large audience for Friday’s concert in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. The vigorous applause welcoming Järvi to the rostrum suggested that it was the conductor himself who had drawn in the crowds as much as the repertoire, which was to cover Dvořák's Serenade for Strings and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad).

© RSNO
© RSNO

The choice of programme was interesting: two works very different in their scoring, composition and nature. The Serenade was written in 12 days in 1875, a very happy time for Dvořák, who was recently married and soon to compose his joyous F major symphony. The thirty-minute work seems eternally positive, showing only occasional dabbles with gentle melancholy, such as in the Waltz. The ternary (A-B-A) form of four of the five movements, suggestive of symphony’s third, maintains a solid and subtly reassuring grip on the principal themes of the work.

The RSNO strings were set out very extensively for the evening, and it was surprising to see the full section turn out for the Dvořák, a work usually played by far fewer than the 60 players present here. However, at no point did the music threaten to become heavy. It retained delicacy of touch throughout and was delightfully playful in the scherzo and allegro, with the ‘sunny lyricism’ offered by the programme note wholly delivered. Järvi drove much of the piece reasonably briskly, which perhaps aided the light-heartedness. A smaller orchestra might have allowed for slightly greater tempo variation, but this was a very pleasing performance which probably helped to relax the audience, ready for the extremes of the Shostakovich to come.

Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony is his longest, with performances usually taking around 80 minutes. It was composed in circumstances very different to those enjoyed by Dvořák in the time of his Serenade. Officially, it was said to have been composed in response to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and completed in December of the same year. This seems fairly unlikely, however, and the widely accepted view is now that the composer had conceived at least the principal ideas of the symphony before invasion. The piece is therefore taken to be about fascism and tyranny in general, rather than Nazism specifically. Either way, it is certainly not the trouble-free pleasure music of the Serenade. It is scored for a very large orchestra; in addition to the 60 strings were 19 brass players, 13 woodwind, 8 percussion, two harps and a piano.

The first movement opens in turns with heroic and peaceful themes in the strings. The famous ‘invasion’ section follows. Over a repeated side-drum figure, a very simple march tune is played thirteen times in increasingly full orchestration. Järvi masterminded the ten-minute passage perfectly, and the Orchestra responded brilliantly. The initial side-drum rhythm was quiet and yet solid enough to give a strong impression of the unexpectedness of the Nazi invasion. The theme was passed around the Orchestra with gently mounting tension until the great tuttis brought the aggressive wind dissonances and interjections from the percussion section. At the culmination of the passage, the floor could be felt vibrating, and the sorrowful lament (Shostakovich referred to this section as a requiem) for bassoon, played with beautiful tone, was tragic.

The inner movements follow a similar pattern of lyricism-militarism-resolve. The wind solos, notably for oboe and clarinet, were again excellent. The grand middle sections were followed by wonderfully ominous passages, particularly in the second movement, in which an extended bass clarinet solo continues over harp and military rhythm for woodwind, holding the memories of past conflict very close. The fourth movement again displays an ascent to a tumultuous middle section, followed by a quieter passage, this time with melodies passing between woodwind and strings. The work is not allowed to resolve quietly, however. A colossal C-major ending, which at its outset might suggest a proper resolution, finishes the symphony in a slightly ironic manner: is it really as easy as finishing with a big C-major chord after so much turmoil earlier in the piece? The shrill wind triplets and dissonant notes in the lower brass suggest not. Either way, there was no reserve from the Orchestra in the final passage, which prompted very lengthy applause. Järvi in particular, who had led with calm authority throughout, received a large cheer. This was a very solid presentation of a symphony with a history of notable performances, perhaps none more so than in Leningrad itself in 1942, in which an orchestra was cobbled together and the concert broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the city and at the invaders. It is also a special piece for the Orchestra and Järvi, whose 1988 Dundee recording of the piece received wide acclaim.