At first sight, last night’s London Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Royal Festival Hall was a typical piece of programming: a well known, relatively undemanding opener, a big symphony to close, and a première of a newly written work sandwiched carefully in between. But this programme had more coherence than met the eye, and Carl Vine’s Second Piano Concerto proved a thoroughly entertaining sandwich filler.

Vassily Sinaisky © Ulla Alderin
Vassily Sinaisky
© Ulla Alderin

The coherence came from an overall feel of film music. Both Vine and Shostakovich were notable film composers, their works adept at painting pictures while remaining in constant motion. The evening’s opener, Beethoven’s overture Leonore no. 3, may have been written before the advent of film, but you’d be hard put to know it as the piece moves swiftly from the depiction of Florestan languishing in his dungeon to his dramatic rescue by Leonore, painting each scene from the opera Fidelio in orchestral miniature.

Vassily Sinaisky is an imposing presence on the podium, tall and surprisingly unbowed for a conductor of his years. He conducts without a baton, his arm movements not so much marking time as waving general encouragement – a notable moment was a finger to his mouth to quieten down the first violins to a proper pianissimo to leave the desired amount of dynamic range in advance one of Leonore’s big crescendi. Clearly, an important weapon in his armoury is The Stare: you see him give several seconds of intensive glare at some section of the orchestra, presumably one that isn’t doing what they were told in rehearsal.

The results improved as the night wore on. In the Beethoven, for all Sinaisky’s animation, I didn’t feel that the LPO were quite following the script: there was plenty of enthusiasm and they sounded great in the fast passages, but when things slowed down, there were too many entries that weren’t perfectly timed and rhythms that didn’t feel quite confident. But things began to click into place as the LPO embarked on Vine’s concerto with pianist Piers Lane, another large, imposing figure. Vine’s work is consistently pleasant on the ear, and its formal structure is easy to follow: three movements give different moods (Rhapsody, Nocturne and “Cloudless Blue”), and within each movement is its own structure of different phases, each movement a little concerto in itself. For the faster, more filmic passages, Vine uses a number of tricks to generate excitement – a particular trademark is a short, extremely fast arpeggio ending in a loud hit of one of the percussion instruments. Another memorable moment was a rare chance to shine for the tuba. Some of the slow passages, particularly in the second movement Nocturne, were ravishing. It’s a work I’d happily see again, with Piers Lane a precise pianist who keeps his rhythms clean and can generate immense attack.

Still, there was no doubt as to the heavyweight of the evening, Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, published after the death of Stalin. Like the Beethoven and the Vine before it, this is an intensely pictorial work, conjuring up all kinds of images as you listen. But what are those images of, and are they the same as the composer intended? No-one is ever sure: Shostakovich’s music constantly keeps you guessing and tends to be described as “enigmatic”. Even Shostakovich’s statement in his memoir Testimony that the second movement is a loose portrait of Stalin has been subject to question.

My own mental picture that this music conjured – in particular an especially manic three-time dance in the third movement – was the quintessential Russian ability, when faced with adversity, to drink a litre of vodka, stare into the abyss with eyes fully open, see the devil at the bottom of the abyss and pull silly faces at him. The spirit of Gogol and Dostoyevsky, I felt, was very much alive in this music. But whether or not one’s own mental images are those that Shostakovich intended, there’s no doubting the music’s power. The huge first movement opens in the darkness of low-register strings, yet a haunting melody gives a mood of yearning. Gradually, woodwind quotes begin to light up the atmosphere, and the violins arrive to swell the music to the first of many climaxes, interspersed with haunting horn calls, before the yearning mood returns to end the movement. The second movement – the possible portrait of Stalin – is huge and frantic. The third returns to calm and reflection, the fourth starting slowly and building to a joyful climax.

The LPO’s performance of this work may not have been the most precise and refined you’ll ever see, but it was certainly one of the most energetic. It’s a piece that cruelly exposes many of the soloists, and the LPO’s wind players were very much up to the mark, most notably principal flautist Sue Thomas. The dynamic and expressive range were high, putting the experience of live performance into a different league from hearing this on record. There were many times when I shut down my critical faculties altogether, simply transported by the music – and that’s as much as you can ask of an orchestral concert.