The programme for the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest concert ranged from the massive sound world of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony to the intimate world of a Bach song. With a performance of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony the Rotterdam Philharmonic, under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, had the chance to show their true colours. Such a great work can only be performed by a truly good orchestra; this was proved beyond any doubt.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Hans van der Woerd
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans van der Woerd

The Fourth had to wait until after Stalin’s death in order to emerge from the depths of Soviet terror. Twenty-five years it waited after its 1936 completion. When the première arrived in 1961, much was revealed: the dazzling language, the capricious structure that lets themes emerge and die away only to be replaced by other, eerie sounds, the enormous orchestra required to produce walls of sound diminished to the whisper of a single bassoon. But the enigma remained. Was this work about the terror of Soviet time, or the creative growth of the young composer?

Performing this monumental and heavily burdened work is no easy accomplishment. Shostakovich challenges the musicians: the strings, in the great “fugato” of the first movement; the horns, in the triumphant passage of the second and the long and demanding bassoon solo. While the strings played with great agility, small cracks in the performance were exposed in the great theme of the second movement, with all the horns blazing in unison, but delivering an impassioned performance, held together by Nézet-Séguin with superb craftsmanship, allowing the symphony to be defined by its inner pulse. The orchestra following the directions with agility, demonstrating how closely the bond between conductor and orchestra has been formed. A truly impressive performance.

The concert had opened with Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of Komm, süsser Tod, komm, sel'ge Ruh, a tasteless adaptation that soaked the original in dense orchestral syrup, reminiscent of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Although beautifully played, with great care and passion, the orchestra was wasted on this music, so out of tune with Bach’s time.

Hans Abrahamsen’s Left, alone is a piano concerto for the left hand, as the composer himself was born without a fully functioning right hand. On this occasion, as many times before, the soloist was Alexandre Tharaud, who also gave the world première last January. It is not a complex work, consisting of six short movements, in which a jazzy sound is often produced by flute and strings, possibly intended to create a sense of movement, to which both piano and rest of the orchestra parts are highly defined as static. It is tonal, but does not want to distract with tunes. The sound world is intently small, even diminishing into a chamber music like texture. 

It was clear the performance did not hold much of a technical challenge for musicians of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and Tharaud's experience led to a flowing performance. But does this music allows passionate glow? Or does it want to unsettle the listener?

Shostakovich's Fourth is certainly unsettling. After the final bars, the soft tones of the celesta calming one of the most violent orchestral outbursts, the audience sat in shattering silence. Played with great clarity, it was as if all breathing paused, so as not to disturb this moment of deep emotion, of grief, of loss. This silence was the ultimate reward for the Rotterdam Philharmonic's great performance.