Patches of different periods from Russia’s music history were sliced out in this evening to present us with a multi-coloured pie chart. Conducting pieces by the Holy Trinity of Russian composers – Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich – Sir Mark Elder bequeathed onto our ears the sounds of three different eras in history that progressively grew in their ominousness.

Anne-Sophie Mutter © Harald Hoffmann | DG
Anne-Sophie Mutter
© Harald Hoffmann | DG

Beginning with the relatively gentle and innocuous Prelude from Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, Elder’s conducting escorted us into the narrow path of a wood with its woodwind miniatures and shy tremolos. But there were some entangled thickets on this lane and pebbly scattergrams on which to stumble. While the flutes’ melodies were played mellifluously and intact, the coalescence between brass and woodwind was a messy, incomplete one. Theirs was a duet not well sustained, with the overall mood exuding just two-thirds of what it could have been.

The onset of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was the cue for soloist and orchestra to diverge and take incomparably different paths. Elder fashioned the orchestra’s entrance with an overly tepid, perhaps too obedient approach – albeit provoking the woodwind to punctuate fervently. Adroit rhythms were there; passions were not.

And then Anne-Sophie Mutter came along. Her slender, honeyed tremolos grew dim a little too quickly, and at the same time her staccato leaps were brazen, hurried, furious… Speed came upon those descending chromatics like bullets from quick rounds of gunfire darting through the air. And like most of those bullets, they were swallowed-up into a vacuum. Domineering and tempestuous they may have been – but few of Tchaikovsky’s idiosyncratic lines, those phrases which herald our attention, were sufficiently egotistically on exhibition. Under the pressing charge of Mutter’s playing, the master Tchaikovsky was close to being indiscriminate: he may as well have been accelerated Bruch or Mendelssohn or, for that matter, Korngold. There was little to account for in terms of transitions from the more solemn, more adagio sections, or lugubrious, long-held dotted notes, or the querulous lento whimpers. Much was lost in the burgeoning shuffle of experimentation.

Yet what we witnessed as an audience was how Mutter, a master of her instrument, is capable of fomenting an art all by herself. From the strictly studious, conservatoire-level perspective, her delivery of Tchaikovsky this evening would most likely score average grades. Her marks for performance per se, on the other hand, would go through the roof. Mutter here seized the body of Tchaikovsky’s work and contorted it into a dazzling array of what could have been known as ‘Variations on Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber’; or even, by the time of the first movement’s cadenza – ‘by Benjamin Britten’. Accidentals sounded lusciously dysfunctional. The cadenza became a jungle of errant notes – spasmodic, unwieldy, sometimes with the air of a post-World War 2 concerto. She swept from two extremes: zip-zapping to limping, whispering tremolo to plosive vibrato, disjointed tempos to no tempo at all. In the second movement she used a mute for a few passages, withering the sound down to a field of almost non-existence. While the spitfire compensated for the performance’s severance from its composer, this was not the physiognomy of Tchaikovsky. This was Tchaikovsky snatched from 1881 and thrust into another era.

Following this unmatchable and sublime breach of genre, Elder embarked on Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 15; a product of chaos and dystopian devastation if ever there was one. Elements of its intrusive guests – a motif from Rossini’s William Tell Overture, echoes of Mahler and, most saliently, the Fate leitmotif from Wagner’s Ring – were disgorged in an appropriately brusque and obtrusive manner. Beats of the timpani became portentous blasts of thunder. Eerie bells resounded uninvitingly. It was like witnessing rain being pelted down onto a clean window from the roof’s gutter: splashing its diaphanous screen with an incongruous swell. Through the thick, ever-growing vibrato of strings, doom was imposed on the audience in a Hitchcockian manner: not unlike the flight of pigeons in The Birds.

And yet all of this could have been much more fearsome. Many effects were interrupted by unwanted mistakes: the fractured texture of a group of trombones, those ever-present muffled brass instruments, flutes somewhat out-of-sync. In both stylistic and conceptual dimensions, Shostakovich was palpably present.

It was a strange concert – at once spearheaded by novel artistic choices and constrained by resistible lapses. Shostakovich was the sole 20th-century composer featured. Yet the footprint that we took away from this was closer to his warped, uncanny style than either of the other masters on display.