Folk music and the sea were two of the inspirations behind a stimulating Anglo-Russian programme that brought together two composers who first met at the Royal Festival Hall in 1960. A fifteen-year bond was formed after Britten heard Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, and its star performer, Mstislav Rostropovich, later fired Britten’s creative imagination for five new works for the instrument.

Sol Gabetta
© Julia Wesely

Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto formed the centrepiece for the evening in which the Philharmonia Orchestra, with guest conductor Elim Chan and Sol Gabetta, delivered a compelling account shot through with playfulness and poetic rhapsodising. At the start, woodwinds responded rather shyly to Gabetta’s forthright attack, but thereafter players and a technically formidable soloist forged a responsive partnership where balance and detail were admirably judged with crisply articulated strings and woodwind and Diego Incertis Sánchez’s mellifluous horn. Notably striking was the exquisite tone of this Argentine cellist, whose shaping of the sardonic first movement owed more to humour than wild abandon, opting for a no risk, well-behaved rendition yet still rhythmically incisive.

The central Moderato brought searching eloquence and pensive musing – underlining Shostakovich’s capacity for conceiving music of intense brooding simultaneously occupying a serenity of utterance – private thoughts distilled into heightened expression. Nowhere more eloquent was this than the introspective passage for solo cello, celesta and strings; mesmerising in its rapt beauty. Gabetta’s hall-stilling cadenza gave way to further demonstration of her technique and if the Finale (with its Russian folk dances) was a little safe, then no matter, her grasp of the work’s challenges was dispatched with a steady hand and communicated with boundless enthusiasm. She returned to the platform for an arrangement of Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

Earlier, the Philharmonia brought off a vivid but less even account of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. “Dawn” was launched with a sun-filled glare from steely violins evoking, not so much the bleak intensity of charcoal-grey seas but electric blue skies; hints of North Sea rollers or impending tragedy largely absent. “Sunday Morning” was a bustling affair but its glittering detail just a shade overblown. The slow processional that is “Moonlight” was a controlled evocation that eventually gathered itself into a splendid climax. Its tensions found release in a violent and well-paced “Storm” – Chan and Philharmonia whipping up tremendous surge and spray in this ‘Force 10’ performance.

Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony (drawing on folk melodies from the Ukraine) is heard all too infrequently, seemingly a poor relation (along with the “Polish”) to its more substantial siblings. This did not prevent the Chan and the Philharmonia giving a highly impressive account set in motion by Sánchez’s superbly played horn solo. Bleakness conjured here soon yielded to a tension-filled Allegro vivo, Chan urging the music forward with rhythmic bite and passionate involvement. An impish Andante marziale brought infectious playing and poise, Chan drawing playing glowing with warmth. The Philharmonia’s strings were wonderfully lithe in the fun and games of the Scherzo and the grandeur of the Finale was magnificently served, its repetition and rhetoric contained so as to produce a performance of charm and drama. Judged on these performances and the response from the Philharmonia, Elin Chan has a very promising future.