Ask any reporter or press photographer who has scooped a headline from one of the great events in history: there’s a lot of time spent hanging around doing not very much, but when the action comes, it happens suddenly, at terrifying pace and, on occasion, with terrifying violence. And that’s exactly how, in his Symphony no. 11 in G minor, Dmitri Shostakovich reads the events of 22nd January 1905 – otherwise known as Bloody Sunday, the day when a crowd of protesters marched towards the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II. The Imperial Guard opened fire, massacring some 1,000 (estimates vary) people and laying the ground for what is now known as the Revolution of 1905. The marchers were unarmed.

Vladimir Jurowski © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Vladimir Jurowski
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The symphony was not written as film music, but from the very opening, you sense that it might as well have been: your mind’s eye has no trouble in reconstructing the events, starting with the calm, bright air of a snowy morning seen across the expanse of St Petersburg’s Palace Square, soft strings punctuated by intermittent plucking of a harp and the gentle beat of timpani; every now and then, snare drum and trumpet indicate military exercises in the distance; the threat of danger becoming steadily more acute.

Vladimir Jurowski is not a flamboyant personality on the podium: he projects no sense of histrionics to the audience or of domineering to his players. But his simple, clear leadership gets results. The Eleventh clocks in at over an hour, with a great deal of it slow and repetitive, but in the hands of Jurowski and London Philharmonic Orchestra, the intensity never flagged. As a unit, the LPO made the most of every element, adding splashes of colour from every instrument, whether it be from luminous flutes, groups of strings, a military bugle sound, solid horns or the six strong percussion unit.

When the action begins, with scurrying strings and portentous brass, Jurowski winds it up to blistering full power, then relaxes back to the dark horns and low strings; a soft pizzicato stringed fade-to-black is just one of dozens of effects. The viola themes are lush, the third movement lament is of almost unbearable intensity, as is the plaintive cor anglais in the fourth movement. What made this performance so special was a continuous sense of purpose, of the series of historical events rolling inevitably towards their grisly conclusion and sad, elegiac aftermath.

The symphony was preceded by a real surprise package, Benjamin Britten’s Russian Funeral for brass band, based on You fell as heroes, one of the Russian Revolutionary songs also used by Shostakovich for the Eleventh. The treatment is utterly different from Shostakovich’s, with the small voice of a trumpet set against the bombast: the railing, perhaps, of the little man against the mighty and their military trappings, dragging the dignity of the march horribly off-kilter.

For the second time in a couple of weeks, I found myself wondering why the first half of the programme was necessary. It started pleasantly enough with a Stravinsky curiosity, his 1908 Funeral Song whose score was lost after its première and only resurfaced recently. It’s a reasonably atmospheric piece which featured some solid brass underpinning and nice organ-like chorales, but isn’t going to pose much of a challenge Stravinsky’s later pieces for a permanent place in the repertoire. Stravinsky’s arrangement of the Song of the Volga Boatmen, which served briefly as the Russian National Anthem, had a suitably grandiose, measured tread, but suffered from timing problems and failed to make much impact.

Alina Ibragimova and the LPO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Alina Ibragimova and the LPO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The main event of the first half was Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major. Alina Ibragimova is a gifted performer: she negotiates the high speed runs with exceptional agility and an uncanny ability to maintain a perfectly even flow while adding enough accenting to provide plenty of excitement. She was thrilling in the first movement, brilliantly acerbic in the second, lusher in the third. The problem is that her simple volume of sound is too small for the Royal Albert Hall. Jurowski did an admirable job of restraining the LPO to ensure that Ibragimova was never drowned out, but with the inevitable result that orchestral detail was lost. Prokofiev’s delicate pianissimi shone through well, but much of the wit of his orchestral writing did not.

It takes a violinist with a far bigger sound than Ibragimova’s to tame this hall, but with the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution approaching, the superb performance of Shostakovich’s take on its historical predecessor made this into a highly memorable Prom.