1905 was the year when Tsarist Russia very nearly came to a sticky end. Instead, the bloody events in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg were a continuing stark reminder of an oppressive regime and the suffering of ordinary people. The enormous loss of life – hundreds were gunned down – remained uppermost in Shostakovich’s mind when he came to write his Eleventh Symphony, composed for the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917. There is little in this G minor work that is celebratory; it is doom-filled from the start.

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra © Ben Ealovega
Vladimir Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© Ben Ealovega

Younger generations are not always aware of the intensely educational value of so many media productions from the past in which classical music supplied both signature tunes and background music. Happy days! I first encountered this symphony in a BBC television series entitled The Lost Peace from the 1960s and remember how the chillingly atmospheric music chimed in with the unfolding negative historical narrative.

This performance, given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, was dedicated to the memory of one of the LPO’s earlier principal guest conductors, and citizen of St Petersburg, Mariss Jansons.

And what a performance it was. Jurowski maintained a taut line stretching through the four linked movements, establishing the overriding sense of foreboding in the quietly menacing and recurring timpani figure, pinpointing the revolutionary songs which make up the thematic fabric of the piece, and shaping the softer episodes such as the beautiful viola lament in the third movement and long cor anglais oration in the finale without any undue sentimentality. Equally impressive was the way in which he unleashed the full fury of the orchestra in “The 9th of January” movement: this was a terrifying avalanche of snarling, piercing, grinding, jabbing and wrenching sounds, non-music presented as music. There was a breath-stopping bite and grip to the string playing, bolstered by additional desks, in the concluding Tocsin (from the Old French word toquesain for bell) which conjured up a pack of hyenas tearing into live flesh. Of this I have no doubt: Jurowski, the LPO and Shostakovich make up an awe-inspiring combination. I have just one minor quibble. Though I heartily applaud the use of real bells at the end (instead of the tubular bells often used), these were immediately muffled instead of being able to ring out and linger in the memory.

John Foulds’ Dynamic Triptych has been described by a leading British journalist as “the greatest British piano concerto”. This work, which plays for less than half an hour, occupied the first half of the evening. Have most of us been overlooking an undoubted masterpiece? The short answer to that is: no. It is certainly well crafted, with degrees of light and shade, containing sufficient elements of both the heroic and the poetic to suggest that the composer is about to embark on a voyage of discovery. However, the soloist’s pounding octaves and massive trills which feature in all three movements are not much more than an opportunity for a bravura display, though these were clearly relished by Peter Donohoe in a strong projection of the score. Many of the effects strike me as derivative, with echoes of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and even Walton, as well as a Debussy-like languor in the Orientally inspired central movement. This is possibly the reason why it has never established itself as a repertory piece: even in the playful pre-echoes of Richard Rodney Bennett in the finale, there is little that announces itself as a highly individual and memorable voice.

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