Every program offers a particular axis of excitement, ahead of a performance. By the end, we might get what we thought we would, or we might get something totally different, a new thrill, a new excitement, or merely the old ones reconfirmed. Tonight, there was to be Joshua Bell romancing us with Wieniawski and Yannick Nézet-Séguin blasting through the vestiges of romance, and showing us what battling Armageddon sounds like in Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony. I confess that before the concert began, I was all in the mood for some easy romanticism, fondly recalling my first sightings of Bell, then a sulkily handsome youth, some twenty years ago. The end saw my profounder conversion to Shostakovich, 1942 and all that.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve

Not that Bell was a disappointment as such.  One of the delights of his playing of Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in D minor was the intense sweetness of his high notes: they were lovely to hear, and particularly so, in his beguilingly elegant playing of the second movement Romance. I couldn’t help but wish that his lower notes were weightier and warmer; they seemed a little spare. As for virtuosity, it was there in dazzling finger- and bow-work, mostly, if not entirely clean and error-free, and there was more relaxed panache in the gypsy passages of the final movement, even a little bit of a swagger.

The performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 in C minor brought the evening to another plane of experience altogether, however. I could truly say, after it, that we had heard it as it was meant to be heard, a rendition fully engaged in the narrative arch of this most iconic piece of 20th-century political music that I haven’t heard it bettered.

Particularly powerful from the very opening of the first movement Allegretto was the bold, strident unison; later in the same movement, that sense of unison became forceful and dangerous in the insistent invasion theme. Here they gave us an absolutely implacable musical Blitzkrieg, terrifying in its fierceness, with a most superbly executed modulation that made the audience gasp.

Shostakovich’s Seventh depends a lot upon ‘big’: its finale has to be one of the loudest in the repertoire with 21 brass instruments, and it is true that the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Nézet-Séguin, has an almost preternatural energy for large passages, for the thundering, shuddering, seismic sounds that engulf the whole auditorium. Watching Nézet-Séguin lead them into the final hard-won but unambiguous victory looked as well as sounded quite thrilling. This was musical narrative at its most persuasive. It wasn’t hard to “get” what it must have been like, stuck in 1942 with no knowledge of how this was all going to end. One sees just why Shostakovich earned his Time Magazine cover as the Fireman Composer and why, too, this work became more quickly and more pervasively global than perhaps any other before. It was of its time, but also transcendent. 

Besides the bigness, what I also want to commend particularly in this performance, was everything that wasn’t big. There’s much sparse-scoring here, such spare, simple, subdued textures at times. It’s Shostakovich meets Churchill: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few”. All this is to suggest that you can drop right back, take out the full forces of the orchestra, and just focus on one or two instruments or lines: they have to be allowed their space too, to mourn perhaps, to fear, to reflect, to act. These passages were not treated as merely ‘bits in between’, but instead were given lavish amounts of attention and detailing – a touchingly pure flute solo in the Adagio, lyrical violas in the Allegro, glowering pizzicatos – all of them sensitive explorations of the many colours of the orchestra.

And it’s partly because of the attention to the few, that that extraordinarily massive conclusion came across as so extraordinary, so palpably real. When a show is good, you feel glad you’ve bought your ticket, had a good night. But when it’s that good, that real, you feel – and you know the whole audience feels – that you are on stage too, that you are part of it, not just at a concert, but in it, somewhere deep inside what music is all about. It’s a good place to be.  

****1