What exactly was Dmitri Shostakovich trying to say? If ever you want to start a fight at a musicology conference, try shouting that one into a room. It’s a question that’s prompted more angry words than any other in classical music. Was he secretly railing against the Soviet system with every note? Or, rather, writing about a whole host of ideas while navigating a tricky and changing political landscape? And was he really trying to say any one thing at all? BBC Radio 3 presenter Tom Service, in his spoken introduction to Aurora Orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, suggested the latter was the most likely. Enigmatic might just be the look Dmitri Dmitriyevich was really trying to pitch for.

Nicholas Collon
© BBC | Chris Chistodoulou

Aurora Orchestra and their Principal Conductor Nicholas Collon have made something of a specialty of performing great symphonies from memory, and here they looked beyond the Classical and Romantic canon to Shostakovich’s Ninth, a classically-proportioned thumb-of-the-nose at the weight of music history (ninth symphonies were supposed to be monumental affairs, à la Beethoven) and the size of the moment in which it was conceived. It arrived in 1945, at the time of the Soviet Union’s mighty triumph in the greatest war in history, and Service mused about the reaction of Soviet apparatchiks at the première, expecting some kind of titanic victory symphony and instead hearing a collection of cheeky ditties with something of the circus about them.

Service and Collon played up the big-top imagery in their genuinely illuminating explanation of the layers of meaning and musical motif in the Ninth’s compact but oh-so contrasting component parts. One by-product of having an orchestra memorise their parts is that they can march around the stage in a choreographed demonstration of the musical mechanisms within. So we had Rie Koyama demonstrate the desolation of the fourth-movement bassoon solo alone at the front of the stage; Rebecca Larsen marching around to deliver the martial bluster of her piccolo part; brass buffoonery acted out by trombones and tuba. A little too much of the clowning around? Well, only in as much as leaning heavily on the circus stuff inserted very specific imagery that rode against Service’s argument that that enigma and interpretative possibility are the heart of the composer’s appeal.

Denis Kozhukhin
© BBC | Chris Chistodoulou

The complete performance that followed dispelled almost totally the misgivings I must admit I harboured about the idea of everyone learning all those notes. Most stood, allowing a sort of vigour and communicative flow that isn’t usually so evident when an ensemble is hemmed in by their chairs and music stands. And the performance itself zinged in a way few orchestral performances ever do, all tied up with a shared purpose that seemed a direct result of the collective endeavour of putting all the right notes in necessarily the right order. If there was a problem, it was the consequence of doing it all quite so together and quite so emphatically: if this piece truly does walk a line between classical elegance and snide rejection of expectations, then pushing every accent and contrast left us with one but not the other and removed all the doubt about quite what it was Shostakovich was trying to say.

Before all that, there’d been a propulsive account of the Second Piano Concerto, a light and energetic piece Shostakovich wrote for his 19-year-old son Maxim in 1957. We can only assume Maxim was amused by the references to fiendish piano studies, the kind of thing Son would no doubt have been hammering away at at the time, and which Father probably fought with in his own youth. Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin, a former Queen Elizabeth Prize winner, rattled it off as though all those finger exercises were mastered long ago; a little more tenderness in the troubled serenity of the slow movement would have been welcome, but the fierce momentum of the whole thing left no doubt that, whatever the composer had hoped to communicate with the music, feverish excitement was the hugely pleasurable result.