La Verdi's anniversary celebrating season has featured such a bounty of weighty works that one wonders how they managed to fit it all in. Their travels have taken from the Coventry gloom of Britten's War Requiem to the champagne-popping jubilation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and  in the space of two weeks the orchestra managed performances of both Verdi's Requiem and Mahler's Symphony no.8, the latter of which was particularly scintillating. La Verdi may have tended to present themselves to the international audience as experts in European Romanticism (their debut concert at The Proms with Joseph Calleja last year featured eight pieces by Verdi alongside Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony), but this year the orchestra has noticeably felt at home in all corners of its repertoire. Music Director Xian Zhang conducted tonight's concert, the penultimate of the season, in which a paring of Mozart's “Jupiter” Symphony with Shostakovich's Symphony no. 5 seemed designed to show off the orchestra's versatility.

Xian Zhang © Nora Roitberg
Xian Zhang
© Nora Roitberg

The radiant Symphony no. 41 has plenty of spirit and sparkle on the page, but it was the players' flexibility in delivery that kept the ear engaged in the moment. Rollicking outbursts altercated with gliding motifs in the opening of the Allegro vivace, and there followed a busy texture of sliding cellos with a glint in the eye and stray violins that jumped out and evaporated in puffs of smoke. If Zhang's brisk tempo risked the music tripping over itself, she compensated with a plasticity of meter that provided essential give and take, and these fluctuations always followed the natural contours of Mozart's score rather than seeking to shape them directly. The final chords were delivered with a jocularity that made even the damp acoustic of the Auditorium di Milano glow with mirth.

Mozart quotes himself in the Allegro vivace with “Un bacio di mano” - an aria composed for Pasquale Anfossi’s opera Le gelosie fortunate - and it is the opera buffa gaiety of this song that best characterised the mood of the entire movement. But one of Zhang's strengths was her ability to make the various movements speak through their dissimilitude. The Andante cantabile sprawled soporifically in underwater somersaults, with cellos occasionally pirouetting out of the texture before returning to their places, and though the Menuetto may have lacked bite, the fireworks had evidently been saved for the Finale where the music really took off. In addition to quoting his own music, Mozart makes nods in the direction of Joseph and Michael Haydn as well as Josquin de Prez, and all of this was made available to the ear through sensitive playing paired with a real depth of clarity. Most impressive was the electrifying five-part fugue in which each of the voices was presented in crystal clear definition.
After the eloquent interpretation of the Mozart, the orchestra struggled to adjust to the more virile nature of the Shostakovich, with the gritty energy of the opening rising sixths soon yielding to floppy entries that robbed the music of much of its impact. The violins, though, eventually steered us onto steadier ground through determined playing to draw us into a climax that had a thrilling impact. The Waltz that followed oozed with acerbic revulsion, where crisp dotted-rhythms, tight brass licks and stabbing percussion created a mocking satire that grew more convulsed with each macabre rotation.

This kind of technical deftness put colour on the score, but there was always an accompanying emotional intelligence that worked to tease out the music's core message at any given moment. The Largo was a picture of abject loneliness, a  seamless seascape that gently swelled and retracted, and this bubbled to a phosphorescent representation of the anguish of a nation suffering in the midst of the Stalinist Terror.

This core message of this piece may be illusive, but clues to Shostakovich's intent lie within a tapestry of references. Quotes from Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel depict public executions that surreptitiously criticise the Stalinist regime, whilst a passage from Shostakovich's song “Rebirth” lends an autobiographical dimension through its reference to the Pushkin's words “But with the years the alien paints flake off like old scales; Genius appears before us in its former beauty”. The mark of a really distinguished Shostakovich Fifth is surely its ability to manage these multiple programmes, and tonight's performance can be said to have done that. The vitriol of the final movement would slip into the introspection of the haunted artist, whilst the final passage of the whole piece seemed to contain both and the voices of the defiant oppressed and a veneer of Soviet heroism of the sort we imagine allowed the piece to slip past Stalin's censors.

The orchestra inhabited the contrasting technical worlds of the Mozart and Shostakovich with real poise, with the result that both performances made for hugely giving experiences. It was particularly gratifying that the signature “La Verdi” sound, sweet violins with cloudless vibrato, was able to shine through the two works' variegated hues at appropriate moments. The orchestra have the opportunity to showcase its characteristic wares on on a wider range of platforms in next season's programme, which matches the current one for variety in place of weightiness. That makes an exciting proposition, though when the playing is as refined as it was tonight this orchestra will be worth hearing whatever is on the bill.