Two composers who suffered the wrath of the Soviet regime, one well known and one virtually unknown, bookending a French impressionist: inspired programming from Ivan Volkov and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Ingrid Fliter © Anton Dressler
Ingrid Fliter
© Anton Dressler

The Ukrainian composer Nicolai Roslavets (1881-1944) was heavily influenced by Schoenberg and Scriabin, falling foul of the Soviet regime as a degenerate modernist, his music banned and well and truly purged as a result. Much has been lost, but gradually works have been restored, one such being the mysterious yet incredibly striking symphonic poem In the Hours of the New Moon. Little is known about its influence or specific inspiration, but it is thought to date from 1912-13, during his time at the Moscow Conservatory. Volkov and the RPO players emphasised its brooding, turbulent expressionism of this dark and ominous work. At times highly Debussian, with whole tone scales and atmospheric orchestration, using the harp and celesta to great effect, this is a striking work, and the orchestra made fine work of the frenzied crescendo build towards its sudden unexpected end, leaving the horns almost high and dry for the final chord. A gem, definitely a work that should be heard more on the concert platform.

Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter launched into Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major with great gusto and immediately took command of its virtuosic opening bars. This no-nonsense approach continued throughout a highly engaging and immediate performance of this jazz-infused pot pourri. Fliter gave great energy to the jazzy rhythms, but so much so that there was a certain amount of audible left foot-stamping that detracted slightly from the syncopations. The almost timeless slow movement was a different matter, with Fliter drawing out the right hand melody effortlessly, yet still with clear direction. The solo wind entries which followed this extended elegy were sensitively judged, and the cor anglais, once momentary tuning issues were resolved, took on the mantle with touching expression, accompanied by rippling embellishment from Fliter. Volkov shaped the orchestral dynamics with great delicacy, and Fliter’s final perfectly measured long trill brought the movement to a moving close. From there, orchestra and pianist launched into the finale with full attack. This is a quirky, spirited movement, with numerous quick interjections from solo instruments one after another. As a result, it can feel a little throwaway, and needs careful control to pull it together coherently. Volkov and Fliter almost pulled this off, but some of the wit passed by a little unnoticed at times. However, this was a striking performance, and Fliter’s stage presence was refreshing and relaxed.

Much has been written about Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D minor, and its position as a positive response to the threats of sanction and worse that he faced following criticism of earlier works. As with much of his music, the messages are hard to unpick, but there is darkness, mockery and, in the almost unbearable pain of the slow movement, surely an expression of psychological and even physical oppression. Volkov ensured the opening canonic dotted rhythms in the strings had immediate impact with fierce, precise articulation. The string ensemble in this exposed writing was tight – it took a few bars for the piano and horns to match this tightness when the faster tempo kicked in.

Volkov began the Mahlerian second movement with great heft in the cellos and double basses, in perfect contrast to the acerbic clarinet and piccolo tune. The central macabre dance is pared down, with a solo violin (leader Clio Gould) over pizzicato cellos and harps, and the return of the opening scherzo section is also delivered on pizzicato strings – the RPO strings once again here demonstrating admirable ensemble precision. The third movement, which brought its first audience to tears, is the emotional heart of the symphony, and having divided his violins into three parts, Shostakovich opens proceedings with more bare writing, with the third violins in duet with first violas over low strings. As each successive string part joins, Volkov visibly sought more anguish from the players, and Volkov achieved an incredible level of intensity throughout this tragically expressive movement.

In the finale, all hell is let loose, and Volkov and the RPO gave it all they had. Volkov never let the galloping get away, keeping rhythms tight and precise, and judging the architecture of the movement well, as the strings work their way inevitably through rising octaves to reach the final thrashing dominant pedal, as for the final pages, the RPO strings visibly working hard right until the end here. The final double stick timp and bass drum whacks before the closing chord brought the performance to a suitably thunderous end. A high impact and arresting performance, leaving us rightfully questioning again what Shostakovich was really saying here in this enigmatic and far from straightforward symphony.