There is not much in common between the symphonies of Schubert and Shostakovich, but tonight in Milan La Verdi drew together two more rarely heard examples of these works under a theme of “turning points”. Schubert was portrayed as the creative genius on the verge of finding his symphonic voice, the close-to-pastiche style of the Sixth Symphony soon to give way to something much more original. Shostakovich wrote his Eighth Symphony whilst still under the oppressive gaze of Stalin, but when the dictator died in 1953 he would be able to pursue his artistic vision with greater freedom. The merit of such a programme is clear – if played well it can demonstrate the versatility of an orchestra. But there is a risk that such heterogeneity compromises the overall coherence of a programme, and La Verdi perhaps were guilty of falling into this trap.

Oleg Caetani
Oleg Caetani

Schubert’s Symphony no. 6 is a delicate Apfelstrudel – light, tangy and full of sugary fizz – and in La Verdi’s hands it was brimming with Austrian Gemütlichkeit. The opening Adagio evoked Mozart in its breadth whilst the darting Allegro that followed was was more like Haydn, the orchestra’s stormy interjections concluding with rising scales on the clarinet that tailed off with finesse. The Beethovenian Scherzo featured the best playing of the first half, and each jocular phrase was invested with individual character. This was a measured, refined performance, and conductor Oleg Caetani waltzed insouciantly on the podium, never bringing the orchestra above a vivacious mezzo-forte, their sound always self-contained and flexible.

The second half provided music that was startlingly antithetical to the Schubert in mood and content. Written in 1943, the work discernibly contains both the lingering horrors of the siege of Leningrad and a more subversive planting, in the composer’s own words, of “tombstones for the victims of Stalin”. In the first movement Caetani achieved a neurotic momentum that built up into terrifying waves of rage, and though this difficult section is as long as the whole of the Schubert it was paced effectively by the conductor, who is experienced in this repertoire. This raw interpretation was only possible through the unyielding commitment of the orchestra, who played with all of the coarseness required to convey Shostakovich’s message – best of all was the meandering piccolo solo, which was played with such aggression that it was uncomfortable on the ears. But it was the orchestra’s sharp characterisation of Shostakovich's movements that really made this performance work. The high-energy Scherzo was full of acid-tongued sarcasm, bringing to mind Stravinsky at his most Dionysian, whilst the Allegro non troppo was a bleak expanse that meandered to nowhere and evoked the horrors of a broken mind. Here, the conductor summoned a restless sleep that would stir to reveal nightmarish images.

The Shostakovich was not without its flaws, and a persistent problem was that though the louder moments were enormously engaging the intensity slumped in the quieter sections, which were ruminative rather than agonised. The violins enjoyed the odd strain of melody with too much romanticism, and I wondered whether they were really inside Shostakovich’s tortured world. The playing in the complex final movement was badly out of time, and here the whole thing threatened to fall apart.

Nevertheless, the moments of brilliance outweighed these difficulties and the conclusion of the piece was justly greeted with generous waves of applause, the biggest of which was reserved for the timpanist, who played her prominent role with real conviction.

A much more significant issue was the suspect programming. If the Schubert was an Apfelstrudel, the Shostakovich was much darker in its flavours, perhaps a heavy stew. Elsewhere this year, La Verdi have produced clever programmes that have worked hard to tease out extra meaning from the material (this was done especially well in their recent double-bill of Rachmaninov and Stravinsky). But tonight the theme was too broad and the common ground too narrow to yield similar results, and the outcome was a concert of two imbalanced halves that sat uncomfortably together. A stronger theme might have knitted the works into something more of an entirety, but tonight it was hard to escape glaring incongruities that left a slightly bitter aftertaste in the mouth.

There was a big positive to take away from the experience. La Verdi played well in both pieces, and they continue to demonstrate that they are an extremely versatile orchestra equally at home in a diverse variety of styles.