Less than 30 years separate two mainstream works by Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, and yet each is rooted in a completely different age and sound-world. Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto inhabits all the cultured sensibility and opulence of Tsarist times; Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony reveals the austerity and angularity of the Soviet Age.

Robert Trevino
© Musacchio & Ianniello

Curiously, in this performance of the Rachmaninov, given by Alexei Volodin and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Trevino, the two works seemed less far apart. Volodin cut a somewhat unhappy figure at the keyboard: slightly hunched throughout and frequently mopping his brow, his mood was subdued rather than suggestive of Fabergé eggs and festive imperial ballrooms. Where he could rely on his formidable technique, the ability of his fingers to negotiate clean runs and even lines, and especially in the cadenza with its fistfuls of notes, he was at his most convincing. However, there is more to uncover in the opening movement than the purely ruminative and rhapsodic, and in the central Intermezzo his cool head was more in evidence than much heart. Where others highlight the joyous dance-like rhythms of the finale, Volodin tended to plod an unwavering course, the playing emphasising the metronomic over the mesmeric. In the approach to the coda where the col legno strings accompany the mounting keyboard jumps, his control dispelled any sense of heady excitement.

It’s easy to see why Trevino has been garnering favourable opinions as his career progresses. First, he has clear authority on the podium, the elegance of his beat combined with a clenched fist at moments of intensity. He has a good architectural grasp of a work as complex as Shostakovich’s “creative response to justified criticism” and instinctively knows where the melodic line lies, resisting the temptation to pick out minor details for the sake of supposed “interest”. Above all, he has the imaginative power to conjure up atmosphere in abundance, already apparent in a glittering account of Mussorgsky’s Dawn on the Moscow River, with which the concert opened.

This reading of Shostakovich 5 was not one for those suffering from ADHD. Yet there was nothing that Trevino did which was against the letter or the spirit of the score. He emphasised the Moderato marking of the first movement, placing it very close to the long opening paragraphs of the composer’s Eighth and Tenth Symphonies; he treated the third movement as a proper Largo, maintaining an impressive control over its seventeen minutes.

There is an old Russian proverb that says: “Pretend to be kissing someone, but then spit when they are not looking.” The hollowness of Shostakovich’s embrace emerged most forcefully in the climax to the opening movement with glints of gleaming steel and the alarming realisation that bully boys were lurking behind every corner. From the start of the finale – “the equivalent of painting a clown’s grin on a corpse”, in Julian Barnes’ memorable phrase – the exultation was expressed with a savage snarl, the weight of the martial rhythms contrasting keenly with those hymn-like reminiscences of earlier tearful lament. But it will be the moments of icy stillness and the way that at the close of the Largo the strings floated gently away into the ether, harps like the wind moaning through leafless trees, which will linger in my memory.