The programme notes for Vladimir Jurowski’s Prom with the London Philharmonic Orchestra began with a comment from Shostakovich about his Eighth Symphony: “All that is dark and oppressive will disappear; all that is beautiful will triumph.” So Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture, celebrating freedom from tyranny, was followed by two works written at the height of the Second World War, both expressing the horrors of war and – in different ways – exploring how humanity can move on from such hatred. It was hard not to have current events in Europe in mind as this dark programme unfolded in a packed Royal Albert Hall.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida performs Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Dame Mitsuko Uchida performs Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Jurowski and the LPO opened with an austere reading of the Overture to Fidelio. This was Beethoven’s final version for his opera, the others now being known as Leonore Nos. 1-3. Unlike the previous versions, Beethoven does not use any material from the opera, but rather sets the mood for the struggle for freedom from tyranny to come. Jurowski’s control of the opening chords was tight to the point of being almost tyrannical in itself, but aside from a slight loss of ensemble in the antiphonal violin passage that followed, this was a lively if somewhat cold reading of this emphatic curtain raiser.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida is a great champion of Schoenberg’s underperformed Piano Concerto. Composed in 1942 during his years in the US, despite its atonality, its single movement is cast in surprisingly conventional form, with four sections comprised of a sonata form section, Scherzo, Adagio and Rondo. Schoenberg’s programme for the work is concise but clear: “1. Life was so pleasant; 2. Suddenly hatred broke out; 3. A grave situation was created. 4. But life goes on…” So things begin relatively lightly with a lilting waltz, and immediately Uchida’s focus was total, communicating constantly with the orchestra and Jurowski. In the dark, almost grotesque Scherzo section, Uchida highlighted the complex fine detail of Schoenberg’s writing and, throughout, Jurowski picked out unusual orchestral effects, such as muted trombones paired with the violas, and col legno passages in the strings. Uchida and the orchestral players executed Schoenberg’s angles and spikes with great precision. The slow funereal march in the third section was particularly sombre, and Uchida displayed solid command in the extended cadenza. The work’s conclusion hardly provides relief, and the final flourish is not entirely convincing – “life goes on” in a troubled way. We were then treated to a brief encore, Schoenberg’s Op.19 no. 2, the second if his 6 Little Piano Pieces, almost welcome light relief after the intensity of the Concerto.

There followed a powerfully bleak reading of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 8 in C minor. Composed just one year later than Schoenberg’s Concerto, the Eighth is relentless in its anguish, in total contrast to the popular Fifth Symphony with which it shares many features, yet without the earlier symphony’s moments of exultation. This was a hard but highly affecting listen. Jurowski did not let up on the intensity for a single moment. Right from the ice-cold opening violin entries, it was clear that this would be a chilling experience, despite the violins skilfully warming the sound as the entries built up. Their intensity was matched by the woodwind, and later in the movement, the full-on tutti advance complete with beating drum was visceral, the piercing shrillness of the piccolo almost painful. Jurowski built this to a truly scary culmination, and in the stillness that followed, the desolate extended cor anglais solo was expertly judged (Sue Böhling deserves special mention here). The movement falls away in despair, and despite the final chord with string harmonics being not perfectly tuned, the LPO’s command of this movement alone left one exhausted.

Yet the two scherzo movements that followed didn’t let up the tension, the first almost swirling out of control at times, and even the moments of sardonic humour, such as the blackly comic trumpet solo against the snare drum, were on the brink of hysteria. The slow movement’s passacaglia leads straight into the finale, and here Jurowski maintained the momentum, building relentlessly to the return of the first movement’s scary crashes. Then everything falls away, with bass clarinet, cello and violin solos seemingly soothing, but the still C major with which the symphony ends is far from reassuring. This was a spellbinding performance of a deeply troubling symphony – Shostakovich referred to the Seventh and Eighth symphonies as his ‘Requiem’, the Eighth reflecting “the terrible tragedy of the war”. Sadly, such an expression of the consequences and aftermath of war felt disturbingly relevant and current.