Sincerity is what we want from our musicians, and often too from our composers. Sibelius ends his mighty Second Symphony in a blaze of patriotic, triumphant sincerity, wringing his hands in a fashion that suited the mood in his native Finland, yearning to slip the yoke of Russian imperialism. Shostakovich too achieves a darkly troubling tone of grim sincerity in the opening Nocturne of his First Violin Concerto, though his relationship with sincerity is often altogether more complicated. Sometimes, we’re confident in diagnosing the sincerity of his insincerity, the happy tune strained through a manic grin. And then sometimes, as in his symphonic poem October, the relationship between sincerity and insincerity is so unclear, that it’s difficult to know what to think.

Nicola Benedetti with the BBC NOW © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Nicola Benedetti with the BBC NOW
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

October, composed in 1967 for the 50th anniversary of the eponymous revolution, is a real rarity and a welcome opener for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ second appearance at the 2017 Proms. But it is a strange brew. Shostakovich seems to have dipped back into an orchestral style familiar from his symphonies of the 1950s, and the apparent thematic link to the altogether-more-serious Tenth Symphony (heard the night before) leaves a strange taste. Melodic material is borrowed from a propagandist song and the whole thing has a spirited, rousing quality that makes any subtext even more difficult to discern. This first ever Proms performance was at turns shaky and tightly organised, but left the piece’s ambiguous potential – beyond its oddity appeal – largely untapped.

While October comes off largely as by-the-numbers hack work, the First Violin Concerto’s position as a high watermark of Shostakovich’s creative genius is beyond doubt. It sat in a drawer after completion in 1948, waiting for the political climate to shift, which it duly did in the years after Stalin’s death in 1953. And here, mining its dark intensity with enormous commitment and thrilling presence, was Nicola Benedetti, a violinist with the technique and musical personality to probe the music’s most fragile corners while utterly commanding the cavernous hall. Her slender, precise tone made a lyrical, sorrowful song of the first movement, but her performance never strayed into the introverted self-pity that some detractors claim sinks Shostakovich’s music. Players of this piece need exacting rhythmic attack though, in the second and fourth movements, and Benedetti made the finale a dazzling, razor sharp race to one of the most exciting conclusions in the repertoire. She was well supported, too, by orchestra and conductor, who kept the ensemble tight where it mattered most, helping the soloist deliver one of the finest performances of this masterpiece that I’ve yet heard.

Sibelius’ Symphony no 2 in D major is material of a softer grain, opening with a gorgeous, dense middle-range string texture that can’t fail to bring to mind the pastoral picture painting often associated with the composer. It’s a surprise then that the air he breathed into its broad body was that of Italy, rather than Finland, though it was as a symbol of Finnish resistance that the piece really found a life of its own. Just as they had the night before, the BBCNOW’s strings really shone in those moments of rich writing so familiar from this failed-violinist-of-a-composer, and they gave conductor Thomas Søndergård that same combination of warmth and transparency that had informed the previous evening’s Seventh Symphony. Curiously, the same concern for atmosphere that proved problematic for me in Søndergård’s way with Shostakovich’s Tenth made much more sense here, as though the essential rhetoric of Sibelius’ music were built from different stuff to that of his Soviet counterpart. Conductor and orchestra’s quick lick through the last movement, which can seem thin in comparison with the music’s inspiration in other quarters, brought it into proportion with the whole without sacrificing the sense of cumulative triumph, or, crucially, its resounding sincerity.