In a programme mounting two of Dmitri Shostakovich’s most personal of works, it is hardly surprising that each piece contained a wealth of the DSCH motif – the composer’s musical monogram. Yet given the presence of Nicola Benedetti and Gianandrea Noseda, if one entered the Barbican tonight only expecting a musical portrait of the Soviet composer, one would have left with a pleasant surprise.

Gianandrea Noseda © Steve J Sherman
Gianandrea Noseda
© Steve J Sherman

Behind a memorable performance of the First Violin Concerto were the charisma and expressionistic prowess of Benedetti. With Noseda – the London Symphony Orchestra's Principal Guest Conductor – very much playing in empathic subdue, the Nocturne had covert momentum following the soloist's hypnotic lead. Certainly, the Scherzo had its bite, but it was in the latter two movements where the deal was. Capitulating on the stately pulse the LSO brass and timpani set for the Passacaglia, there was a cantabile quality in Benedetti’s tone. Yet the rawness of her expressions were rich, finding their blossom in the cadenza soliloquy, even if one could have expected a bit more subito in phrasing. The resultant Burlesque, limping in its own subversive intent, was all any Shostakovich enthusiast could have wished for, full of zest and a smirk. If Benedetti has made a name in recent times for her Shostakovich, this performance only added another layer to her growing reputation.

Two years ago, Noseda started his Shostakovich cycle with the LSO, with this performance of the Tenth Symphony coming after they tackled the Eighth two months ago. If Shostakovich’s music was once derogated by Stravinsky as “brutally hammering”, it was an iron-fisted will that Noseda instilled in Shostakovich’s dramatic architecture. The playing acquired a portentousness coupled with terrifying precision, elements somewhat wanting in the earlier concerto. Especially impressive was the narrative. What was written out in sonata form of the Moderato panned out in effect as ternary, as Noseda kept the exposition and its recapitulation, as it were, in pensive stillness, unleashing fire in the central development. The intensity was reprised in the scintillating Scherzo, which was played with particular angularity and vehemence. The physical presence of the timpani, played by Nigel Thomas was crucial in moments of abandon.

For the last two movements, the multiple junctions of themes and moods can sound patchy under lesser batons. Here, the LSO excelled, rarely losing momentum. The brass gave a sense of nobility to the ‘Elmira’ horn call of the Allegretto (representing one of Shostakovich’s students, Elmira Nazirova), and not a single pizzicato was disjointed. Plenty of melancholy was to be found in the Andante and the dark undertones were not underplayed in the eerie glee of the Allegro, Noseda demonstrating sensitivity and dynamic control. For what was an unambiguously vital coda, the preceding outcries of the DSCH motif throughout the orchestra, almost obsessively so, left an afterglow of a disconcerting sort. Perhaps such ambiguity was what Shostakovich was after in this troubled symphony.

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