Musicians – just like the rest of us – have often been forced to eat their sometimes rashly uttered words. None more so than Nikolai Rubinstein who, when his protégé Tchaikovsky played him his Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor in January 1875, declared that it was “worthless and unplayable” and that “passages were… "so badly written that they were beyond rescue.” To which the mortified composer responded in a fit of pique with his unequivocal “I shall not change a single note!”. However, Rubinstein was later reconciled with the work he had initially derided and Tchaikovsky proceeded to alter his score in both 1879 and 1888 to make the concerto into what we know today.

Roman Zaslavsky © Nirto Karsten Fischer
Roman Zaslavsky
© Nirto Karsten Fischer

What might the composer have thought had he known his concerto was being performed as part of the inauguration of a new concert venue in Germany’s leading commercial city, with a Russian-Israeli soloist, a British orchestra and an Italian conductor? Satisfaction at least at its universal appeal. The choice of the B flat minor concerto was in any case a fitting one: Tchaikovsky made a number of visits to Hamburg during his lifetime, including one in January 1888 when he conducted it as part of a programme of his own works.

This was the LSO’s first outing since the announcement earlier in the week that Sir Simon Rattle is to become their Music Director in 2017. It is, of course, a much-travelled orchestra, as used to short hops across the Channel as more extended tours, but it has not often been accorded the privilege of giving the opening concert in a new venue. Hamburg is still waiting for the completion of its new hall, the state-of-the-art and very costly Elbphilharmonie – already five years behind schedule, this is now planned for January 2017. Meanwhile, one of the halls that make up the city’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market has been converted into a 2400-seater concert auditorium at a cost of over 30 million euros. Given that Hamburg is the world’s third most important destination for musicals (a production of Dirty Dancing is scheduled for May), this new venue is primarily intended for musical theatre.

Both the soloist, Roman Zaslavsky, and the orchestra had to contend with an unhelpful acoustic. Dry and antagonistic, the cavernous space allowed for little bloom on the orchestral sound and an absence of sparkle from the piano. After an unpromising start with some noticeable slips, Zaslavsky settled into a steady and unpretentious account with occasional moments of inwardness in the slow movement. Yet overall there was no soaring with the eagles: the reading remained largely earthbound, with an over-emphasis on the articulation of the notes and too little attention to colour and dynamics.

Mehr! Theater Hamburg © Mehr! Theater Hamburg
Mehr! Theater Hamburg
© Mehr! Theater Hamburg

The shadow of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s lies over what is arguably one of the most popular of all 20th century symphonies. It is said that Shostakovich himself always kept a small suitcase packed for the time when he feared his own arrest might come. From the moment Noseda launched into the opening string lines with an arresting vehemence, it was clear that this performance of the Fifth Symphony would carry an icy chill of unease. Listening to this conductor’s beautifully-considered and emotionally-charged approach, congenially supported by an LSO in resplendent form, I couldn’t help wondering how it was possible for early audiences to mistake the subversive sub-text of this symphony for mere triumphalism. As an old Russian proverb has it, “Pretend to be kissing someone, but then spit when they are not looking.” Noseda was particularly good at catching small moments of orchestral detail with a sense of brutalism – the stomping of jackboots in the opening moderato movement, the martial rhythms taut as a coiled spring in the malicious waltz parody of the Allegretto, and the side-drum in the finale sounding like an ominous midnight tap on the shoulder. At the heart of this great work – the Largo, composed in just three days, in which the brass, the heavy artillery, are momentarily silenced before the battle still to come – Noseda achieved a remarkable intensity of expression in the eight-part string textures, unleashing blizzards of tremolos punctuated by stabbing pizzicati in the double-basses.

Nervous energy was also in abundance throughout most of the finale, with significant contributions from all sections of the orchestra, not least the mellifluous woodwinds (a special mention to Adam Walker for his sensitive flute solos). A lot of attention has been focused on the matter of tempo in the coda and present-day conductors more often bring out the hollowness inherent in the score when it is taken at a very deliberate pace. And now comes my only quibble about an otherwise fine performance: without this slowing down the celebratory overtones succeed in submerging the bitter irony that Shostakovich must have felt at his “practical and creative response to just criticism.” Stalin would have had a broad smile on his face.

How else could this concert have ended but with a tribute to one of Hamburg’s famous musical sons, a furiously driven and heavily inflected rendering of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 5, cleverly designed to banish the demons to the background.