Heavily shrouded, Death loomed large over Vladimir Jurowski's latest programme in the Southbank Centre’s “Belief and Beyond Belief” series which explores faith and spirituality. The Grim Reaper swept the aisles of the Royal Festival Hall, merrily wielding his scythe. Three bleak works, each seemingly haunted by ghosts of the past, saw their composers confront mortality. It hardly made the evening a bundle of laughs, although at least, when staring into the abyss, Shostakovich's black humour offered a typically wry response.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Marco Borggreve
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Marco Borggreve

Edison Denisov’s brief Symphony no. 2 was composed in 1996, his final year. The London Philharmonic Orchestra crowded the platform, four vibraphones ranked along the back. From an airy glitter of flute wisps and percussion chinks, fragments of other works suggested themselves. Was that a Valkyrie flitting past? Or a hint of dawn from Daphnis et Chloé? Apparently, there’s even a quotation from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique in there, hidden too well for these ears to detect on a first hearing. Gradually, the work coalesces into something angrier and louder, reaching a decibel-busting finale which could rival anything by his teacher, Shostakovich.

Alban Berg was unaware of his approaching death, but his Violin Concerto was composed as a requiem for Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler's daughter who died from polio at the tender age of 18. Berg was stunned by her death and composition of the concerto was something of a grief mechanism. Dedicated “to the memory of an angel”, its two movements are a study in loss and resignation, clarinets quoting Bach’s chorale Es ist genug, So nimm, Herr, meinen Geist (It is enough, Therefore, Lord, take my spirit). Berg died just three months after the première.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, dressed in tails and baggy trousers (but barefoot as usual) struck an impish figure on the platform, sometimes crossing one leg in front of the other, even introducing a skip at one point which took her clean off the ground. But she also achieved great stillness at times in this poignant, painful concerto. Kopatchinskaja's spectral tone, bow hairs barely stroking the strings at times, chilled; her deadweight pizzicato thudded and her final bars whispered across the hall.

The clock ticks for Shostakovich in his Fifteenth Symphony. Death approaches. It’s a bleak, spare work, the orchestral writing often pared back to just a few voices. The composer’s black humour is ever-present, the symphony packed with teasing riddles. Quotations from Rossini’s William Tell overture raised an audible chuckle from the stalls, and the opening phrase from Tristan und Isolde trips off into a dance just when you’re anticipating that chord. Shostakovich also quotes from his earlier symphonies, most noticeably the clockwork percussion from his troubled Fourth Symphony, the work he hid away in a bottom drawer for years, fearful of the response it could provoke from the Soviet authorities. The humour was present from the cheeky opening flute motif, brilliantly dispatched by Principal Juliette Bausor. Jurowski, jabbing an accusatory finger, conducted a well-drilled account, the LPO brass adopting priestly tone for the solemn brass chorales. As the celesta twinkled and the percussion clicked and whirred, one was left wondering what this most enigmatic of symphonies means… which is, no doubt, exactly what Shostakovich would have wanted.