The relationship between Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha and the Philharmonia has clearly grown since him taking over a concert originally planned for Lorin Maazel in 2015. However, tonight’s programme was a tough call. Despite Shostakovich’s comment on his Eighth Symphony, that “All that is dark and oppressive will disappear; all that is beautiful will triumph,” there is little conventionally obvious beauty in either of the two works on offer here. Both works require an intensity of direction and attention to detail that was achieved here with varying success.

Frank Peter Zimmermann © Harald Hoffmann | Hänssler Classic
Frank Peter Zimmermann
© Harald Hoffmann | Hänssler Classic

Frank Peter Zimmermann showed exceptional command of the challenging and somewhat relentless demands that Bartók poses in his Violin Concerto no. 2. Bartók had all but forgotten his early two-movement concerto, which was never performed in his lifetime, so he simply called this his ‘Violin Concerto’, written for the Hungarian violinist Zoltán Székely in 1938. This one he did hear performed in 1943, just two years before his death. It is a remarkable work, and is rightly considered one of the greatest 20th-century violin concertos. Zimmermann’s performance was energetic and full of bite, and he was constantly alive to the exchanges between the solo part and the orchestra. Herein lay the problem with this performance however. Valčuha and the Philharmonia never quite matched Zimmermann’s edge and bite, and at times some of the orchestral detail was rather muffled. Bartók’s writing needs angular precision, and this was there at times, in the bright brass fanfares in the first movement, and the slapping pizzicatos of the second movement, for example, but not elsewhere, particularly in the opening of the final movement. Perhaps there was a stylistic mismatch here, with Zimmermann pointing up the work’s raw folk-infused nature in his somewhat harsh but incisive delivery, against a rather less edgy delivery from Valčuha and the orchestra.

Positioning the percussion at a lower level, in front of the trombones, did not help this either, as some of their detail was obscured as a result. However, bringing the harp forward to between the violin front desks worked well, given its prominent role in the first two movements in particular. Zimmermann gave real swagger to the queasy dance of the finale, and here finally Valčuha and the Philharmonia followed his lead, giving a spirited finish to proceedings. Zimmermann concluded the concert’s first half a technically impressive encore of Rachmaninov’s Prelude Op. 23 no. 5 in G minor, as transcribed by Ernst Schliephake.

Following the interval, Valčuha and the Philharmonia seemed more at home with the Shostakovich, and they gave a convincing reading of this dark and difficult symphony. Attention to detail and strong solo work from a number of the orchestra’s principals lifted the intensity of their performance. On the whole, Valčuha led the orchestra successfully through the extended journey of terror laid out in the symphony’s lengthy trajectory, if perhaps holding back on the extreme moments of violence.

Composed in 1943, Shostakovich referred to this and the preceding Seventh Symphony as his “Requiem”, and the Eighth in particular reflecting “the terrible tragedy of the war”. In his memoirs, he alluded to the irony that the war allowed him to reflect tragedy in his music in a way that he couldn’t before (hence the more overtly positive Fifth Symphony), because the tragedy could be blamed on external forces. But Shostakovich was clear that it was not just the atrocities of Hitler, but Stalin’s 'disappearances’ that he mourned in this Requiem. He didn’t get away with this, and the work was pretty much withdrawn, before officially being censored in 1948.

The long opening movement grows from nothing, the pianissimo entries handled with dry care by the Philharmonia strings. As the tension built, and the woodwind joined to turn the screw, any tentativeness in the initial ensemble was now forgotten. The shrieking clarinets heralding the full-on tutti onslaught, topped by piercing piccolos, were suitably frightening, before all dropped away into desolation, and a heartbreakingly sensitive and mournful extended cor anglais solo from Jill Crowther. The mammoth arc of the first movement over, Valčuha and the Philharmonia nevertheless maintained the intensity with a steady yet biting second movement, perhaps a little straight-faced and lacking sardonicism, and a driving ostinato set off expertly by the violas in the third movement. Here, there were occasional lapses in tempo, which the violas had to pick up when they reprised the ostinato rhythm. The slow movement passacaglia had moments of poignancy, with a touchingly fragile horn solo. The arrival of a tentative major key heralds the finale, and in the wandering, weaving string and woodwind lines here, there was a slight sense of loss of direction, although the final pianissimo conclusion was appropriately ambiguous, Shostakovich’s supposedly settled C major not convincing us that beauty has really triumphed.

***11