On paper, this programme evoked the darkest side of the Russian character: beginning with a new piece inspired by Bulgakov’s pioneering work of magic realism The Master and Margarita and concluding with Shostakovich’s most mordantly personal symphony. If Rachmaninov’s popular (and populist) Paganini Rhapsody seemed an incongruous makeweight, we could remind ourselves that it, too, is a work pervaded by mortal thoughts – as evinced by the Dies irae of the Latin Requiem that pounds through the middle variations like a tolling bell. “Abandon hope all ye who enter here…” might have been inscribed above the doors at Symphony Hall for this concert by the touring Moscow State Symphony Orchestra under conductor Pavel Kogan.

Pavel Kogan © Letoline | Wikicommons
Pavel Kogan
© Letoline | Wikicommons
Yet there was nothing solemn or po-faced about the programme’s delivery. The relationship between conductor and orchestra is well-established and appears to be affectionate but never cosy: from the moment Kogan lifted his baton, his intention to deliver focussed and dynamic renditions of these works was signalled. Performances never seemed rushed. Kogan had located the pulse of each work and gave us readings that were both vital and, at times, irreverent.

Stephen Johnson’s Behemoth Dances is a short work, whose titular character is the monstrous cat, accomplice to the evil magiican Woland. Those familiar with Bulgakov’s novel will appreciate how effectively Johnson has rendered Behemoth’s sardonic character in music, with agile work from the brass section. The novel’s shifting moods and locations, from seedy Moscow magic theatre to Margarita’s broomstick flight above the city, were vividly evoked by contrasting dance and martial rhythms, mixed in with plainchant. Kogan’s assured direction ensured that it never sounded like a pot-pourri of disparate ideas and themes, coming together as a cogent whole.

There was nothing episodic, either, about the performance of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. John Lill presided over the solo part with the authority of someone who, while knowing the work backwards, is still capable of providing fresh insights. This was a clear-eyed reading, balancing the work’s playful, solemn and romantic elements without giving undue emphasis to any one. Although the 18th variation will always be the work’s ‘unique selling point’, there was nothing spotlit about Lill’s rendition here and the orchestra offered stalwart support.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony speaks powerfully of private misery – a misery shared by millions of Russians under Stalin’s terror but which they were too terrified to articulate. It is difficult for an audience that has never lived under tyranny to comprehend the experience that gave birth to this work: one minute you are your country’s most feted composer, garlanded with praise and festooned with honours, the next you are being denounced by people you privately despise but must publicly respect, for producing “muddle instead of music”. To recover your reputation (and perhaps to save your own life), your only option is to make a grovelling apology in the form of a work which you offer as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism”. In these circumstances, your only salvation lies in ambiguity.  Fortunately, Shostakovich was a master of ambiguity and what Stalin was pleased to accept as a mea culpa, we may hear as a coded raspberry blown in the face of his tormentors.

A Russian orchestra will have a particular emotional investment to make in this symphony. Kogan’s forceful intent was demonstrated from the beginning, with strings plunging into the first movement’s exposition with the force of someone being thrown bodily into a vat of cold water. The developmental section was judged perfectly, so that when the martial theme emerged, propelled by the side-drum, it had exactly the jolting effect the composer intended; the movement’s conclusion provided another magical moment, where time became stationary, as concertmaster Alexandra Zhavoronkova’s violin and Elena Kazna’s celesta trailed off into silence.

The same thrust and concern for dynamics was evident in the scherzo, which had never sounded more like a death waltz, for all its sprightliness. But even in a work as veiled as this, there has to be a heart-on-the-sleeve moment and the Largo is the closest Shostakovich comes to unburdening his soul. Kogan and his orchestra played it for all its worth, finding intense feeling in the movement’s expressivo climax that held the audience so rapt that the beginning of the Allegro final movement had the effect of a slap across the face. The note of sour triumphalism on which the symphony ends was precisely caught in a performance of astonishing alacrity: the whole piece clocked in at just forty minutes!

The reception fairly took the roof off and we were treated to a generous three encores: Rachmaninov’s Vocalise was sensuously melancholic, Shostakovich’s Tea for Two gave us some necessary light relief (you need to see this piece performed to understand just how funny it is!) and the tango El Firulate by the recently deceased Argentinian composer Mariano Mores. A triumphant evening.