This imaginative RSNO programme sandwiched fusionist Gershwin between unbelievably contrasting Shostakovich, seasoned with a little retitling. Shostakovich's Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra was previously known as Jazz Suite no. 2 until the re-emergence in 1999 of a piano score bearing the same name which was believed to have been lost in the war. Gerard McBurney orchestrated that work in 2000.

Lawrence Renes © Mats Bäcker
Lawrence Renes
© Mats Bäcker

The suite's replacement title seems more suited to content, which is scarcely jazz. America is absent, the dominant lilt being European - particularly Viennese; three of its eight movements are waltzes. The inclusion of four saxophones might account for the previous categorisation. Kyle Horch's lovely alto saxophone sound featured in the “Lyric Waltz” and later in “Waltz 2”, a theme now known to many from Stanley Kubrik's 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut.

There were many brief solo moments but none surely so exposed, both visually and audibly, as the perfectly timed xylophone work of Principal Percussionist Simon Lowdon in “Little Polka”. Renes and the RSNO really seemed to enjoy the tutti moments which they delivered with great flair, especially the infectiously jubilant coda section of “Dance 1”. I sensed very little irony in the suite, with the exception of a little Lydian mode bite in “Dance 2”. Could it be simple happiness? David Kettle's fine programme note estimates the date as around 1956 as the music reuses contemporary Shostakovich film music. Stalin was decomposing by then.

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue began life as American Rhapsody. George's brother Ira suggested the change after visiting an art exhibition where some titles featured the preposition 'in' followed by colours. Commissioned by Paul Whiteman, the composition was a hurried affair, orchestration completed just four days before the première. Gershwin improvised the cadenzas and the score bore the words “wait for nod”.

Soloist Terence Wilson embodied this improvisatory spirit. Dapperly dressed and coolly coiffured à la Mohawk, he looked and sounded very relaxed, employing a laid-back rubato. His prodigious technique and articulation shone, particularly in the final cadenza where the crossing hands work closely together. Josef Pacewicz delivered the now iconic opening clarinet glissando with effortless grace. Leader James Clark was equally relaxed and lyrical in a later solo violin passage. Those who have criticised the work's lack of cohesion might recall Gershwin describing “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness”. There can be little doubt that this Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant felt great affection for his adopted land - especially in the penultimate theme - and especially as played here.

Following rapturous applause, Wilson dazzled orchestra and audience alike with Arcadi Volodos' arrangement of Rondo “alla Turca” from Mozart's Piano Sonata no. 11 in A major, K331. In this exuberant cauldron of a party-piece, the themes which would normally separate the rondo melody rub up against each other in joyously rhythmic contrapuntal friction.

Even strangers to Shostakovich's 1953 Symphony no. 10 in E minor Op.93 might have gauged from Lawrence Renes' shoulder flexing that a heavyweight bout was about to begin. The opening Moderato occupies a huge share of the symphony and, certainly as played here, is a master-class not only in gradual climax but in the art of making lengthy de-escalation as gripping as escalating tension. This was masterfully paced here by all concerned. The gradually thickening RSNO string sound - the sole occupant of the Usher Hall for quite some time - was wonderful. A lone interloper eventually appeared: Josef Pacewicz's lyrical clarinet - the antithesis of the shrieking soon to be required from the woodwind.

In Testimony, Solomon Volkov cites Shostakovich as describing the Allegro as a portrait of Stalin, whose recent death enabled the twice-pilloried composer to feel safe in releasing the work. It is certainly a depiction of terror and of the mercurial moods and cruel caprice by which dictators seem often to terrorise populations. The string sound, now more biting, was joined by quickening side drum, terrifying brass and panicking wind. In this texture, slow brass chords embodied that cinematic paradox of an adversary whose steps, though slower than yours, are nonetheless catching up.

Shostakovich's signature DSCH theme dominates the following two movements, sharing the Allegretto with the horns' E-La-Mi-Re-A theme, thought to signify Elmira Nazirova, a student of whom Shostakovich was very fond. This movement was rich in lovely woodwind solos and teamwork.

Following David Hubbard's beautifully shaped bassoon solo and some jaunty, major key music, the Andante-Allegro was dominated by the DSCH theme 'stamping' on the late dictator's grave, egged on by percussion, particularly timpani and mocking woodwind. Shostakovich is still composing! This electrifying performance certainly confirmed the strangely compelling power of darkness.

****1