Elisabeth Leonskaja playing the “Emperor” Concerto was this concert’s advertising tag line, but in the event it turned out to be the least satisfying thing on the programme. Leonskaja is still “the lioness of the keyboard”, and she bowled me over when she played both Brahms concertos in one evening back in 2014. Her technical proficiency had noticeably slipped by this evening, though, and several things that you might dismiss as slip-ups at the start of the concerto became quite serious worries as they kept on happening. Everyone is allowed an off night, of course, but the the lack of confidence seemed to spread into the orchestra so that the first movement’s tutti lacked the vigour that it really needs. Things improved, thankfully, and after a dreamy slow movement Leonskaja attacked the Rondo’s main theme with vigour that was striking enough to be surprising in the light of what had gone before. Furthermore, Clemens Schuldt, whose work with the SCO I have really enjoyed before, got a grip on the orchestral shape so as to provide a triumphal recapitulation in the first movement, as well as a blissful string tone in the second. I couldn't shake the feeling of an opportunity missed, however, and of a concerto that, despite its ebullient finale, was firing on only half its cylinders.

Elisabeth Leonskaja © Julia Wesley
Elisabeth Leonskaja
© Julia Wesley

Far more searching and profound was what came in the first half, with a performance of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony that was perfectly judged and far more successful than when Valery Gergiev did it in the same hall last summer with the Mariinsky. The tempi, for one thing, were much more considerately judged in proportion to one another, with a first movement that was clean and clear, including fortissimi where you could still hear the daylight. The slow movement had a gorgeous, full bed of support from the lower strings, and Schuldt threw himself (literally: it was quite a sight!) into the Gavotte, before a finale that was light and bouncy without feeling too rushed.

The real emotional heart of the evening, however, came in Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of the Eighth Quartet. One of the composer's most personal works, it was written at a low ebb in his life and is dominated by his personal motto, the DSCH theme that became his signature. I love Barshai’s arrangement (Shostakovich himself declared it an improvement in many ways), and the SCO’s strings played it as though they had an insight into the composer’s psyche that few could share – or, in the light of how morose he was feeling at the time, would want to. There was depth and heartfelt passion in the string tone, with knockout solos from the violin and cello, while the violas called down glory onto themselves with the sensational colour they produced. There was also manic energy aplenty, with the second movement sounding like a demented machine careering out of control, and the third a hysterical waltz that had curdled into a dance of death. It was utterly bleak, yet convincingly so, with the tortured counterpoint of the finale setting the seal on one of those performances that’s so emotionally powerful you have to pick yourself off the floor at the end.

Four stars, then? Well, it’s three stars for the Beethoven, five for the Shostakovich: let’s call it quits in the middle.

****1