Blistering Shostakovich crushed Rachmaninov in this uneven pairing, the London Philharmonic’s latest exploration into “Rachmaninoff: Inside out”. Self-imposed exile after the Russian Revolution saw Rachmaninov settle in the United States, where the Fourth Piano Concerto was his first composition (apart from a few piano transcriptions) since leaving his homeland. Shostakovich remained, but hid his Fourth Symphony away for years, withdrawn before publication after Stalin denounced the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It wasn’t heard until 1961, during a brief cultural thaw eight years after Stalin’s death. The symphony’s excoriating power rather left Rachmaninov trailing in its wake.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

To be fair, Rachmaninov recognised the faults in his Fourth Piano Concerto. Two years after its composition, he made several cuts before withdrawing the work altogether. He eventually revised and republished it in 1941, although it has never joined the pantheon of his great masterpieces. Pianist Alexander Ghindin has championed the original version, in concert and on disc, but it was difficult to hear why. In its revised form, it runs a much tauter musical argument – Rachmaninov eventually cut the finale from 567 bars to 434. In its original version, the concerto drags. A heavy touch and lack of poetry in his phrasing characterized Ghindin’s performance, emphasising the concerto’s long-windedness. There was little Vasily Petrenko and the LPO could do to pep up this limp performance.

Shostakovich’s Fourth couldn’t have provided a greater contrast. From the wailing woodwind alarms, xylophone rattle and dissonant horns of the opening bars, I was pinned back in my seat. Petrenko drew the most scorching playing from the LPO, the brutality of the first movement’s volcanic march theme hammered home with relish.

Petrenko’s conducting is fiercely precise rather than expressive, his baton flicking its beats neatly, while his left hand is used either to cue in players or to beat time as well; the crazed string fugato had his open left hand beating time for the first violins, while his right was directed at keeping the violas on time. Petrenko handled the score’s sprawling structure supremely convincingly, effecting the sudden shifts from the grandiose to fairground high jinks (shades of Petrushka) to crushing violence seamlessly. The LPO’s woodwind team of 20 was outstanding – garishly sarcastic when required – led by splendid contributions and clean articulation from guest principal flautist Alja Velkaverh. There are plenty of moments where Shostakovich seems to nod towards Mahler, such as the chirping bird calls or the desolate bassoon solo in the first movement, beautifully shaped by John McDougall.

The middle movement has hints of a Mahlerian scherzo, with its triple time Ländler feel – cheeky string portamentos permitted – and snarling clarinets, but Shostakovich’s harmonies add an extra undercurrent of bitterness and sarcasm. All three of the symphony’s movements have eerie, quiet endings, but the percussive clockwork trio of side drum, wood block and castanets at the end of the second clicked, ticked and whirred metronomically to a particularly menacing close.

Petrenko then ramped up the tension for the long finale, again handling the vast stretches of brass bombast very well. Mahler’s shadow again falls over Shostakovich in the bassoon-intoned trudge of a funeral march, but ear-syringing volume was never far away. The LPO brass blazed gloriously and there were fine moments from Mark Templeton in his trombone solo. Petrenko again balanced the comic and the vicious in Shostakovich’s sudden shifts before the symphony concluded with its spectral celesta chiming over decaying harp and strings. It was one of those priceless moments where you can sense an entire hall holding its breath. It’s probably a good job that orchestras don’t schedule Shostakovich’s Fourth too often as it’s easy to become emotionally spent after such a shattering performance.