Two works belonging to the late 1930s – one written in the shadow of war, the other conceived as an act of rehabilitation within political oppression – formed the lion’s share of a Philharmonia Orchestra programme that reminded us of the great friendship between Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich. Communication was a deeply embedded instinct in their music making, a quality that makes their contrasting musical personalities such a rewarding experience in the concert hall. Marin Alsop gave dramatic expression to their works, leading the Philharmonia in committed performances.

Marin Alsop conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra
© Luca Migliore

The evening, however, began with Jessie Montgomery’s Strum, a "light and dance-like" work for string orchestra from 2012 that was originally conceived for cello quintet six years earlier. It unfolded from a solo quartet of strings, initiated by plucked viola, to reveal a flowing folk-like lyricism allied intermittently to strumming textures and fluid polyphony. Although a New York native, Montgomery’s work had echoes of English string music – Holst and Tippett perhaps – but possessed a sufficiently individual character to make her name one to remember. Certainly, the Philharmonia gave this seven-minute work an impressive outing.

There followed a highly charged account of Britten’s Violin Concerto, Op.15 – a work from 1939 that finds the composer searching for his own style and seemingly unable to shed the influence of Prokofiev and Mahler. At its UK premiere, The Times critic had doubts about the work, observing that "so little is achieved from so large a display of ingenious effort". Alas, I had similar reservations for this garrulous composition that occasionally overworked its limited material. That said, Arabella Steinbacher was an authoritative soloist who brought to the opening movement a sweet-toned timbre entirely suiting its melancholy. Her playing was not without brilliance and was especially evident in the second movement’s athletic passagework and demanding cadenza.

Arabella Steinbacher and Marin Alsop
© Luca Migliore

The Philharmonia was superbly supportive and keenly responsive to Alsop’s energising gestures, with timpani and woodwind respectively adding heft and subtle colouring. Especially notable was the brief passage for two piccolos, tuba and divisi violas, an unlikely combination that seemed to embody the physical distance between the composer’s Suffolk home and Quebec, where the concerto was completed. Trombones were to the fore at the outset of the Passacagliaits mood grimly determined but illuminated by Steinbacher’s fearless assurance. Hers was playing of total conviction, fierce yet flexible and fully committed to the complex demands of the score.

After the interval came a compelling account of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D minor, launched with an arresting burst of visceral energy that almost pushed you back into your seat. Thereafter, the opening movement’ s wintry lyricism and its brutal transformation was fully realised, the Philharmonia playing with parade-ground precision that was aided and abetted by Alsop’s unyielding manner. Her style generated more gutsy playing in the opening bars of the heavy-footed Ländler that is the Allegretto, fearsome bow strokes from cellos and basses almost creating sparks. Hers was a sectionalised reading, continually marking out the paragraphs much to the detriment of any momentum. Yet she extracted every ounce of emotion in the Largo, foregrounding intensity over tragedy and enabling memorable solo contributions from clarinet and oboe. The finale was no less intense: more bombastic than possessed, yet not without excitement. The brass and percussion rose to the occasion magnificently. If the movement’s climax felt laboured, the final furlong was magnificently achieved and prompted; like its 1937 premiere, a standing ovation followed.