Rows of empty seats in a concert hall will always be a dispiriting sight, particularly for an orchestra of international renown. Experienced concert promoters generally know what sells in classical music and what keeps punters away. Perhaps on Wednesday evening the Anvil was relying on the pianist Leon McCawley and a famous Tchaikovsky concerto to draw in a full house. Maybe two relatively unfamiliar works by Shostakovich were enough to dissuade the usual crowd from venturing out. Had the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Alexander Dmitriev coupled Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E flat with a better-known work than his Incidental Music to Hamlet (in a sawn-off version lasting some 15 minutes) the denizens of Basingstoke might have abandoned an evening with Wolf Hall in favour of two of Russia’s most popular composers.

Leon McCawley © Sheila Rock
Leon McCawley
© Sheila Rock

The concert opened with a slice of Shostakovich’s Hamlet music written for a scandalously irreverent stage production in 1932, conceived by the avant-garde director and designer Nikolai Akimov who turns Shakespeare's tragedy into black comedy. From an original manuscript of 51 short items, Shostakovich fashioned a 13-movement suite, and from this the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra presented six movements. The intention was to present a sort of tour d’horizon that would showcase this eclectic and amusing score which turns on a rouble from pathos to parody. In many ways the musical collage succeeded, and its echoes of Prokofiev, Offenbach and even Kurt Weill had their own distinctive presence, but the “Funeral march” and “Hunt” scene merely sounded banal and “Ophelia’s Song”, removed of its satirical context, failed to make an impact.

By comparison, Leon McCawley, the soloist for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor, made a far more memorable impression and there was now a frisson of excitement in the hall. The slightly stooped figure of Alexander Dmitriev also managed to conjure some degree of animation from his players, but it was efficiency rather than inspiration that emanated from the podium. That said, Dmitriev created just the right tempo for the opening Allegro non troppo to allow McCawley to express both aching tenderness in the first movement’s plaintive gestures and terror in its homicidal octaves which were thrilling in their propulsive vigour. Nothing was routine here, although the movement’s contrasting material might have been more sharply defined. Flute and oboe made sensitive solo contributions in the slow movement, as did two cellists and McCawley seemed to enjoy himself in the quicksilver Prestissimo. It was in the final pages of the Allegro con fuoco, where his exhilarating scales helped lift the performance onto another plane and demonstrate how good this orchestra can be. Further demonstration of McCawley’s artistry was heard in the gentle lyricism of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G major, Op.32, no. 5 that served as an encore.

After the interval more Shostakovich followed in the shape of his Ninth Symphony. Written in just six weeks in 1945, its five short movements puzzled Leningrad’s first listeners who had understandably expected a triumphant epic. Instead they heard a work reminiscent, in its mannerisms, of Haydn and its surface humour failed to save the work from official Soviet criticism. There is more to the symphony’s  “light and sunny mood” (to borrow Shostakovich’s own phrase) as Dmitriev made clear in the desolate pages of the second movement where clarinet and lower strings pursued an atmospheric course and, again, in the lonely recitative-like fourth movement where the bassoon playing was compelling. The strings were superbly disciplined in the central Presto movement and in the rousing march of the finale two trumpets added the necessary bravura with impressive articulation.

As if, perhaps, to compensate for the almost indecent haste with which the symphony ends the audience was treated to two Tchaikovsky encores: the Entr’acte from Act II of The Snow Maiden and the Trepak from The Nutcracker. 

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