Two very different Shostakovich works filled the programme in this latest edition of the Voices of Revolution series masterminded by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, Op.77 from 1948 represents the composer at the peak of his career, symphonic in conception and quite possibly his most fully rounded concertante work, and it was set alongside the monumental edifice that is his Symphony no. 4 in C minor, Op.43. This was a pairing that said much about how the composer developed or, as we are now led to believe, was forced to develop after the advent of Stalinist repression.

Vladimir Ashkenazy © Keth Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keth Saunders

Listening to this exemplary performance of the concerto, one was left in little doubt what the mature Shostakovich achieved despite the need to walk the tightrope of Soviet approval. In the safe but inspired hands of James Ehnes this was a performance to savour. Every expressive detail of this great score was presented with clarity and flair, both by Ehnes and by the Philharmonia under the wise direction of Ashkenazy. The purity of tone achieved in the first movement was impressive indeed, leading to a Scherzo which danced with a menacing edge. For the deeply-felt Passacaglia Ehnes had reserved his most passionate and heartfelt playing and the long cadenza was superhuman in its control and virtuosity. The unbuttoned finale cleverly answers all the questions posed in the earlier movements, quoting various themes from them. All these subtleties were clocked here while still finding the correct note of excitement and, for once in this composer, a sense of genuine joy in the final bars.

The Fourth Symphony is a very different kettle of fish. Composed after his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, it seems to summarise all the technical brilliance the composer had achieved by 1935, as well as some of the influences that had shaped his style and on a more global level the Soviet state up to that point and beyond. Everything about the work is experimental. It’s almost as if the composer sat down with an enormous blank orchestral score and wrote down his musical thoughts as they came to him. Particularly in the first movement, he virtually abandoned any conventional formal processes, instead piling on theme after dazzling theme with only occasional references to material that had gone before. The cohesion of the movement relies on the sheer quality and forcefulness of the material.

And certainly, there are moments when the huge orchestra is at full stretch that overwhelms to the point of blotting out all that has gone before. Shostakovich draws in material, especially in the finale which are clearly influenced by Mahler. However, despite his admiration for that composer, it is almost as if he is mocking his grandiose style. Likewise, there is a passage in the same movement that parodies the “Classical” Symphony by Prokofiev, his main rival just recently returned from his exile in Paris. Every time a theme seems to establish itself it is then brushed aside and for yet another. Only in the intermezzo-like short central movement is there any sense of cohesion and order, dominated as it is by an obsessive four-note figure.

Was the young Shostakovich forging a new style, sticking up two fingers to the musical establishment or painting a portrait of the new Soviet State in all its illogical and dangerous glory? Ashkenazy’s view of the work seemed to be none of these things; instead he appeared to be trying to bring order to chaos. Rather than going hell for leather at the score, as some conductors do, he took a more measured approach, attempting to hold together the few structural threads that he could. Parts of the two long outer movements had moments that seemed to drag, however the frequent climaxes were given their full due. Something didn’t quite gel here compared to other performances in which caution and reason haven’t been an option and the illogical rightness of the piece is more fully revealed.

However, the playing of the Philharmonia was beyond reproach. The woodwind in particular were stretched to the limit and were never left wanting. The brass were as heavy as they needed to be, but never sounded overly strident. In the final bars the celesta solo certainly captured the strange mood of bemused stillness as it should. A baffled performance, then, of the most baffling of symphonies.