The National Symphony Orchestra returned from their Russian tour, their first in 25 years, to perform another concert in their Salute to Slava series. The works were chosen to represent Mstislav Rostropovich's close personal and collegial connections with the composers, and the conductor, James Conlon, told the audience that he had been adopted by Slava himself in 1976, and appeared almost every year in DC during Slava’s 17 year tenure.

James Conlon © Robert Millard
James Conlon
© Robert Millard

To set the evening’s mood came Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. There is nothing like Grimes for evoking an eerie atmosphere and cold light along the Suffolk coast, and the orchestra painted its subtle tones with care. There was the high, cold clarity of the strings as the "Dawn" breaks in the first movement; the faraway smash of the waves against the rocks in the cymbals, the glowering brass of another grey day. "Sunday Morning" was lighter in feel, but the strange melancholy was always lurking, and came out again in the sustained sounds of "Moonlight". The "Storm" crashed around with orchestral seascape with due force, and the end was powerfully conceived and executed – the thrashed sound, crisp and controlled, without mercy or remit, like the lash of a whip, or the moral scourging of the opera’s central character. Quite stirring.

"Primitive cacophony" was how an early critic described Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no 1 in D minor. A work of blistering conciseness – a performance lasts about 16 minutes – it is hard to see how, from the perspective of today, this bijou concerto could be anything less than popularly appealing. There is no prancing around; it gets to the point straight away, and stays there. Lise de la Salle gave a performance of rapid fire virtuosity, hitting a brilliant stride as she went along. There was plenty to enjoy here, although sometimes a little more electricity was wanting. Some of the orchestra’s sustained passages sounded more lugubrious than suspenseful; de la Salle could have belted the sound more towards the end with that wonderfully bracing D flat major theme.

As the city was in ‘tornado warning mode’ this evening, Conlon jokingly announced that Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D minor was a musical tornado. The orchestra, so recently arrived back from Russia, wanted to dedicate their playing to the victims of the St Petersburg metro terrorist attack a few days ago. Cultural politics seems to entirely fit with this great work’s ambiguous agenda – on the surface, the good-Soviet-boy response to official criticism, but underneath a work of subversion of the whole totalitarian ideal. There was passionate engagement with the various demands of the movements – from the strident brass, to the reined in rhythm of the drums, to the redemptive flute and violin solos. Sustained sounds, and building up of intense crescendos enabled us to take in the serious wholeness of this work, and not be swallowed up by its very bigness. The fourth movement was properly big and relentless, and there was a magnificently fierce pounding from the timpanist right at the end – earth-quaking stuff. A due homage to Rostropovich and Shostakovich indeed.