This month sees the 40th anniversary of the death of the 20th century’s most versatile composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. How appropriate, therefore, that the RPO under its principal conductor Charles Dutoit marked the event with the composer’s last symphony, a summation of his life’s work.

Charles Dutoit conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra © Chris Lee
Charles Dutoit conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
© Chris Lee

It starts with the simplest of all sounds, a solo glockenspiel. What follows is a vast mystery of composition which probably nobody will ever be able to fully comprehend. At its end the sounds that make up a large symphony orchestra, including eight percussion players, are pared down to almost nothing. It is as if Shostakovich had wanted to echo the words of Ecclesiastes 1:14: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”

One of the merits of Dutoit’s considered and sensitive exploration of this puzzling score was the way in which layers of possible meaning and cross-referencing were consistently laid bare. The first movement took us back to childhood with bright flecks of percussive sound and sharp-edged martial rhythms clearly inhabiting Nutcracker territory. When Duncan Riddell’s seductive solo violin was set against the soft wind and percussion, there was a slightly heady feeling of skating on the thin ice of the village pond with all the attendant dangers. And as the movement drew to a close, the scampering and scurrying of the strings suggested riotous capers in the children’s nursery, on which the repeated quotations from William Tell provided an ironic commentary.

When Shostakovich composed this work in 1971, in a matter of weeks, he had already suffered one heart attack and was being increasingly hospitalised with an unspecified medical condition. It is highly likely that his mind was occupied with thoughts of his own demise. The long Adagio second movement can be seen as a lament for dead souls: it started unpromisingly in this performance, with ragged brass playing in the intrada and a slightly unsteady cello soliloquy, but matters improved with an impressive contribution from solo trombone and icy flutes, together with a sensitively shaped string threnody recalling the composer’s own Eleventh Symphony. One specific characteristic of this movement is the other-worldly quality of the orchestration, with additional contributions from a solo bass, celesta and xylophone. Most of the notes are either very high or very low on the scale, with the middle spaces left unfilled, and rarely is the entire orchestra heard playing together. It is regrettable, given the commitment of the players, that in the following short scherzo a very fidgety audience felt obliged to give its own percussive commentary on the mordant wit.

Much attention has been focused on the significance of the quotations from Wagner in the finale, but Dutoit also brought out other influences. In the repeated, slightly syncopated murmuring of the lower strings there was more than just a suggestion of the “dodgy ticker” that underlies Mahler’s Ninth, and can I have been alone in thinking that the serene passage for strings towards the end was an acknowledgement of his friend and fellow composer Britten’s Simple Symphony? For many who lie dying in a hospital bed, the final sounds they will hear are the clicking, tapping, hissing, whirring and buzzing of the machines that surround them, together with the rattling of their own dentures, all captured magnificently in the closing pages of this enigmatic work.

A link between the symphony and the concerto that preceded it in the first half was provided by Elisabeth Leonskaja, who will be celebrating her 70th birthday later this year and who not only knew Shostakovich personally but regularly played for him. She is very much “Old School”: an unpretentious, unfussy player who played K482 in the concertante tradition, aiming for a chamber-like intimacy and often achieving a true dialogue with the reduced string complement and highly expressive winds. In the first movement, the RPO took a while to settle, with moments of imprecise coordination with the soloist, but the grave opening of the C minor slow movement was beautifully shaped by Dutoit who exposed the moments of darkness when we almost stare into the abyss. No original cadenzas by Mozart survive for this work and Leonskaja chose to play those by Britten. I wish she hadn’t. In both instances it sounded like a lioness rattling at the bars of her cage. For me there was a complete stylistic mismatch, which is surprising given Britten’s love of this particular composer.

Love was what Henri Büsser, Gounod’s last pupil who died in 1973 at the age of 101, felt for many of Debussy’s piano compositions. He later orchestrated the four movements of the Petite Suite, here served up as a kind of hors d’oeuvre in stylish and colourful fashion, not least in the jaunty and festive characterisation of the final ‘Ballet’ movement.

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