The human spirit is a remarkable phenomenon. It gives us the power to dig deep into our reserves to find resilience and defiance against unimaginable odds. Witness the extraordinary circumstances behind the first Leningrad performance of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony in 1942. But it also imparts on us the wonders of experiencing life through a wide array of more joyful and uplifting emotions – Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, with its tenderness and sheer joie de vivre, is a fine example. With this in mind, Marin Alsop and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brought these thoughts together in a programme showing the human condition at its most joyous, stirring, forthright, sad, angry and defiant.

Marin Alsop © Adriane White
Marin Alsop
© Adriane White

The RPO brass and percussion opened proceedings with a rousing attention-grabber, Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, a piece written in response to a call for composers to write fanfares for subscription concerts in 1942-43 to salute various aspects of the war effort. This was a chance for the warm and round sound of the RPO brass and the impressively emphatic percussion to flex their muscles, producing robust and forceful declarations of Copland's brief but cogent expression of humanitarian freedom. This opening salvo hit the spot and set the tone for the Shostakovich to come later.

But before that, Renaud Capuçon brought a touch of elegance to the programme with a refined performance of Mendelssohn's heart-warming Violin Concerto in E minor. He produced a sweet and fruity tone from his Guarneri del Gesù violin, with a particularly lyrical Andante and some wonderful phrasing. Intonation was patchy early on but it soon settled, and Alsop and the RPO were attentive and sensitive in support throughout with a perfect balance created, particularly in the softer passages. The opening movement felt a little methodical at first, but the appassionato element picked up from the cadenza onwards. The Finale set off at a nifty pace, light and airy, with a slight hint of soloist rushing ahead, but Capuçon maintained character and control leading to a sprightly and confident finish.

The second half was a true revelation. The circumstances behind the first Leningrad performance in 1942 of Shostakovich's monumental Symphony no. 7 in C major seemed a million miles away – a city under siege, all routes and supplies cut off, people dying of starvation and reports of cannibalism, but still the weakened bodies of the few available musicians found an inner strength to pull off a remarkable feat in performing this monumental work.

What struck me most in Alsop's performance was how well she shaped and conceived the piece as a whole, with the RPO producing an exemplary performance playing with granite determination, delicacy and fine detailing throughout and clearly feeling every note. Strings dug in from the outset, with clipped woodwinds, declamatory brass and a potent percussion section. The gradual build up of the "invasion theme" in the first movement was sinister, biting, relentless and terrifying. The Mahlerian second movement had Alsop carefully mixing metronomic motifs with swaying gestures, and the trio section with its shrill woodwinds and rasping brass was particularly effective.

The third movement had the RPO hinting at hope but evoking tinges of sadness and despair, with sinewy passages providing a constant narrative of angst heightening to an expression of frustration and desperation with brass hailing over the top of the agitated orchestra. The quiet pensive opening of the Finale gave way to mighty statements of defiance leading to a triumphant conclusion, straining intently against Shostakovich's bittersweet undercurrent. Alsop built up the tension thrillingly right to the very end, with every ounce of physical and emotional energy wrung out of the impressively committed RPO. Leningrad in 1942, for a while at least, seemed a little closer.

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