In 1966, history professors in the US spoke carefully worded provisos regarding the Soviet Union’s promise that it would be able to penetrate the leadership of America without firing a single shot. Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Cello Concerto no. 2 that same year, which was during the deepest of the Cold War deep-freezes between the West and the Soviet regime. Little did he know that this piece, a completely different mind-set than that of his chirpy and pugnacious First, could serve as that subtle salvo – a highly nuanced piece of artistic propaganda. Its mixed palette of aching threnodies and joyful romps through blood-tinged triumph alternately pull the listener through an ambiguously executed portrait of what life supposedly was like behind the Iron Curtain.

Pietari Inkinen © Nguye Phuong
Pietari Inkinen
© Nguye Phuong

The same could be said of Sergei Prokofiev’s post-war and penultimate Symphony no. 6 in E flat minor, also on the programme of the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s trio of concerts with conductor Pietari Inkinen (replacing the previously announced Paavo Järvi) and cellist Truls Mørk. The orchestra, Mørk and Inkinen, in his Budapest debut, performed these two post-war Russian classics with the kind of visceral connection needed to reveal the Soviet enigmas portrayed within, and with a splendid sonic vibrancy aided by the excellent acoustics of Müpa’s Béla Bartók Hall.

Mørk gave the concerto a particularly soulful and heart-ripping interpretation, with muscular acumen and great lyrical nuance, projecting his instrument’s brawny tone with ease over the complex and often competitive score. The second movement’s bubbling bassoons behind the soloist’s short moto perpetuo monologue, the snake rattles behind his short cadenza, then followed by a circus-like atmosphere of brass burbles and faux-military alarms kept listeners entertained – akin to the kind of lascivious distractions that often take place during socio-political matters of real gravitas.

Similarly, the Prokofiev starts off with a blast of flatulent brass calls and responses, almost as if the composer had thumbed his nose at both Stalin’s impending Zhdanov Decree (which banned many of his works in addition to those of Shostakovich and Khatchaturian) and the staircase he had fallen down two years before. His recovery from that accident, evidently, had altered his mind a bit, and his last few works bear witness. This score is so emotionally complex, it would take a lifetime to unravel all of its esoteric references and moody meanderings, but its kaleidoscope of colors, textures and effects are mesmerizing enough to take at face value.

Before the two Russian behemoths, Sibelius’ lesser-known Lemminkäinen’s Return from the Lemminkäinen Suite, Inkinen was in his element: a vast epic Finnish orchestral landscape, seemingly without end. This short piece is the finale of the suite that paints a mythical nationalistic legend, and depicts the hero’s return from the dead. It’s triumphant and warming, and served as the perfect neighbourly ice-breaker before the ensuing traipse through the chilly Cold War escapades.

Inkinen’s youthful and somewhat hyperbaric leadership, while seemingly paying inordinate attention to every tiny detail, nevertheless guided the ensemble to palpably exhilarating moments, good elucudation of the intense layers of orchestration, and a maturely engineered conclusion. This programme, under his supervision on short notice, deserves merit for not only his injection of supreme energy into pieces that are not on the top 40 programmed classics, but for presenting a convincing argument to add them to that list.