How do you solve a problem like Shostakovich? The challenge for audiences is to accept the fact that the composer had essentially just two modes of expression: slow, circling clouds of intense anguish and fast, flippant exercises in military precision. The challenge for performers is to find something fresh and vital within this variegated tautology, in order to locate and extract the essence of a man who, on his own admission, felt a compositional need to “resort to camouflage”. Facing that challenge on this occasion was the Polish Baltic Philharmonic (its first appearance at the Baltic Sea Festival) under Ernst van Tiel, with violinist Alena Baeva, in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, completed in 1948.

Alina Baeva and Ernst van Tiel © Arne Hyckenberg
Alina Baeva and Ernst van Tiel
© Arne Hyckenberg

The composer’s fast mode was here rendered a kind of danse macabre, less successfully in the second movement, where the connection between soloist and orchestra felt strained and the momentum became somewhat animatronic, but the burlesque finale was a thrilling, furious gallop into the valley of death, Baeva’s bow acting like a whip to spur the music on ever faster. More telling, and certainly more moving, were the slow first and third movements, the former rendered as a kind of never-ending song, harmonically homeless, equal parts dream, fantasy and nightmare. The soloist here acted to provide solidarity, her material spreading through the orchestra like a flow of blood, clarifying the harmony and prevailing into a place of delicate beauty. The performance of the latter, a passacaglia – the quintessential form for Shostakovich, facilitating continually evolving expression above a never-changing foundation – was revelatory, demonstrating that here and only here, the composer was free, able to find ways emotionally to transcend immovable boundaries.

If Shostakovich’s first violin concerto is the result of a mind that’s been traumatised, Górecki’s Fourth Symphony unequivocally seems to be the product of one that’s been lobotomised. Finished in piano score at the time of the composer’s death in 2010, and subsequently coloured-in by his son, Mikolaj (also a composer), the work constitutes an exercise in aggressive, obsessive, schizoid outbursts, characterised above all by crazed repetition and a non sequitur structure. Thus, a short, heavy cycling fragment of melody – punctuated with dull thuds from three bass drums – becomes overlaid with interfering dissonance, only to be immediately replaced with a miniature aside from piano and glockenspiel, rejected in favour of soft cellos. And so it continues, episode after episode, a two-clarinet idea with chimes, an overlong, unintentionally funny sequence for piano and cello that could be an excerpt from the world’s most boring sonata (and which could almost be a parody of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps), a boisterous tutti overladen with oom-pahs… and so on, and so on. It’s hard to know whether to be irritated by this display of (intentional or otherwise) compositional illogic or simply to feel sorry for it. The Polish Baltic Philharmonic treated it with the utmost seriousness, which was probably best in the circumstances, although the impressive clarity they bestowed on the work only made its contrariety all the more acute. One could easily forgive the members of the audience who walked out long before its disjunct ramblings were concluded.

Polish Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra and Ernst van Tiel © Arne Hyckenberg
Polish Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra and Ernst van Tiel
© Arne Hyckenberg

Arguably the most striking work in the concert came from a relatively unknown figure, Grażyna Bacewicz, one of the very few female Polish composers ever to have achieved international recognition. Her seven-minute Divertimento for string orchestra, composed in 1965, just a few years before her death, took us into another world, seemingly a hermetically-sealed one. Ernst van Tiel here managed to make the large interior of Stockholm’s Berwaldhallen feel small and intimate, enabling both orchestra and audience to scrutinise the elements and connective threads in what is a curious but decidedly effective piece. Here was music trying to break out into melody but physically unable or unwilling to do so, sliding pitches thrown between registers, falling into motoric rhythmic grids. The second of the three movements went elsewhere, approaching something palpable, a strange blend of lyricism and menace, the muted upper strings stained by deep double bass clusters. It was all surprisingly poignant, as though the music was in real time searching for its own voice. The title of the piece has to be taken with a large pinch of salt: for all its obliqueness, Bacewicz’s Divertimento was easily the most serious and emotionally potent work of the evening, providing a tantalising glimpse of a composer whose work clearly deserves much greater exposure.