Andris Nelsons has been a frequent visitor to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra since 2008, often conducting the symphonies of Shostakovich. This time, he programmed the Symphony no. 11 in G minor “1905”, a dark and powerful work referring to a truly troubled history. He coupled it with one of the most difficult piano concertos in the repertory, Prokofiev’s Second.

Yefim Bronfman © Oded Antman
Yefim Bronfman
© Oded Antman

Prokofiev’s concerto requires close-knitted interaction to combine an extremely difficult piano part with a very lively orchestral accompaniment. Yefim Bronfman is a great pianist, but from the opening movement, I did not feel the extra glow that makes for an outstanding performance.

Matters improved from the slow movement intermezzo, where there seemed to be better communciation between orchestra and pianist, and the tuneful finale came as something of a relief, Bronfman truly masterful in the bell-like chords of the cadenza. The RCO displayed incredible quality in the horn and woodwind solos, but Nelsons reined back the strings, possibly fearful of swamping the piano with too much energy, too much emotion.

Nelsons’ account of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony told a very different story. It derives its “1905” subtitle by its specific reference to the events of the Russian Revolution when, in January 1905, thousands of Russians gathered in front of the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, to present their government with a peaceful petition. Instead, thousands of men, women and children were mown down by gunfire, the snow turning red with the blood spilled. The Eleventh was composed after Stalin’s death, but the shackles of the Communist Party had not been completely loosened. Shostakovich wrote forceful music to depict the horror of the events, as if he were composing a musical score to an invisible film. The aural images are hard to ignore, not just the side drum’s gunfire, but also the oppressive opening movement, where harps accompanied by dark strings announce the new day, heralded by a breaktaking trumpet solo. This symphony requires tight control by the conductor, especially given Shostakovich’s fierce rhythms, and Nelsons showed himself to be masterful. The RCO double basses were especially terrific in their driving fourth movement motif, while the horns were sublime in the Brucknerian requiem of the third movement’s “Eternal Memory”.

Nelsons clearly created such tension that the audience was motionless for the symphony’s nearly hour-long span, eve if he didn’t always push Shostakovich’s dynamics to their widest extremes. The RCO followed Nelsons dutifully, with incredible flexibility, immaculately balanced.