Things Russian aren’t exactly flavour of the month at the moment, so hats off to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for mounting a full-throated defence of their Shostakovich programme. “We are proud to play music by composers who worked resolutely in the midst of oppression”, writes the orchestra’s Chief Executive in this week’s programme.” To hear their music now represents the triumph of artistic freedom in the face of tyranny.” Amen to that.

Andrey Boreyko rehearsing the RSNO
© James Montgomery

I sighed a little, however, when the orchestra announced they were going to precede this programme with Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine. Hasn’t the moment passed, I wondered cynically? It was a beautiful performance, dripping with vibrato and sensuous legato, albeit in a rather slight piece. But Andrey Boreyko elided the final soothing chord into the cacophonous opening crash of the Lady Macbeth Passacaglia. Suddenly my cynicism was jolted out of me with all the force of a musical cattle prod, and the playing of the Prayer turned into something more than virtuous solidarity: it contrasted its warmth and peace with the brutal savagery of humanity at its rawest. 

Boreyko was actually a fairly late stand-in as conductor. Principal flute Katherine Bryan explained to us at the beginning that Boreyko was rather more available than normal at the moment because he had cancelled all his engagements in Russia in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Russia's loss is our gain, because his conducting of the extracts from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was ear-opening, the Passacaglia unfolding in a swirling vortex of doom, its gathering inevitability made all the more powerful by the Technicolor brilliance with which the RSNO embodied each line of texture. The drunkard scene, in which the body of Katerina’s husband is uncovered, was biting and incisive, but also slightly comical, like an out-of-control spinning top that’s whizzing towards a cliff edge.

Andrey Boreyko rehearsing the RSNO
© James Montgomery

The first thing most people find out about Shostakovich’s biography is the story of Lady Macbeth, that Pravda article, and the Fifth Symphony’s alleged role in Shostakovich’s rehabilitation; so it was good to hear music from both the opera and the symphony in a single programme. Moving from the zany virtuosity of the opera to the more restrained world of the symphony underlines how much Shostakovich’s style was forced to change in the interim. The RSNO realised this too, and they played it with chilly beauty. The strings, in particular, showed an ability to turn on a sixpence in changing their tonal colour; curt and imposing in the opening, then instantly anaemic in the violins’ first theme, but warm and supportive for the second subject. Baleful brass sounded powerful in the climaxes, and much of the music had a sense of gathering threat. Maybe they didn’t have the heart-in-mouth passion that the greatest interpretations display, and the climaxes of both the first and third movements felt a little detached, but the Scherzo had much more “welly” (forgive the technical term) and the final pages had the right levels of ambiguity, too slow to be merely triumphal.

The ambiguity was worn much more lightly in the Second Piano Concerto, played with quicksilver wit by Simon Trpčeski. There was plenty of sparky humour, but also unusually pronounced levels of legato, even in his cadenza. The orchestra responded with effervescent energy, particularly in the footloose whirligig of the finale, where the strings had a whale of a time in the pizzicato episodes and the winds and brass rattled out their phrases with bullet-like precision. Trpčeski’s dreamy tone matched the orchestra beautifully in the slow movement, still and unfussy, unfurling gently but beautifully. He was joined by the orchestra’ leader and principal cello for his encore, the Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, which they played with urgent brilliance and a sardonic grin. 

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