Prom 54: An Offering for the Queen, Idyllic Delius, and Shattering Shostakovich.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 54: Davis, Delius Shostakovich:Tasmin Little (violin), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.8.2012 (CG)

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies:Symphony No. 9 for Orchestra and Brass Sextet (2011-2012)
Delius:Violin Concerto (1916)
Shostakovich:Symphony No 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953)

When I attend concerts, I’m interested in the reactions of other concert-goers. Bob, a former employee of GCHQ, wasn’t sure about the Maxwell Davies, was entranced by the Delius, and completely blown away by the Shostakovich. Mary, a lawyer, thought the Maxwell Davies was a load of rubbish, the Delius beautiful, and the Shostakovich absolutely terrific. Nic, a conductor, thought the Maxwell Davies great (he loves his stuff), the Delius a bit aimless, and the Shostakovich a really great piece. Greg, a record company man, hated the Maxwell Davies, found the Delius agreeably quaint, and the Shostakovich “one of the greatest symphonies, full stop.”

On the basis of this unscientific survey, then, five stars go to Shostakovich, three or four to Delius, and maybe two to Maxwell Davies. So what did I think? Read on…

Maxwell Davies’s Ninth Symphony is dedicated to HM the Queen on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee. One can only wonder what she would make of it; it’s not exactly a cozy tribute to be enjoyed on a sunny Sunday afternoon, relaxing on a sofa at Balmoral. He describes it as “tonal,” but you wouldn’t really notice a tonal structure in the traditional symphonic sense. He says he was inspired by the architecture of Italian churches, in which you find a central nave with several side chapels. Translated into this work, you have the main music, or orchestra, in the middle, with other stuff emanating from the sides.

Much of the music is violently angry and explosive. Into this are hurled contributions from brass groups mostly playing ‘um-cha’ music; the effect is deeply ironic or plain silly, depending on your point of view. What we have actually is a protest against the UK’s escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan, so there’s orchestral chaos mingled with the aforementioned interjections from the brass groups, positioned to the right and left of the orchestra. The second main section of this continuous work is mainly quiet, with the brass instruments becoming more integrated into the general texture, although there are yet more angrily explosive sections to come too. The work has no triumphant ending as such; instead, to quote the composer, “all the diverse elements come together in a full- throated imploration for peace, reconciliation, and a true democracy, even in quite difficult circumstances.”

Does the symphony come off? Well, yes – but as you’ve gathered, it’s not an easy listen. I personally dislike the chaotic orchestral stuff, particularly in part one, which I found excessively muddled and confusing, especially in the Albert Hall, where you could frequently see musicians playing ferociously but hear not much more than a mish-mash with high woodwinds thrashing about. And yes, I thought the brass contributions often daft. But the overall structure of the piece does work, and it’s a good deal more concise than some of the composer’s other symphonies. Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO should be congratulated in giving a fantastically committed performance of this often technically difficult work; insofar as one could tell it was accurate and spirited when required or quietly sensitive. The same forces gave the first performance earlier this year, and gave it a great deal of rehearsal time.

Delius’s Violin Concerto has a real devotee in Proms favourite, Tasmin Little. She had not worked with Petrenko before, but the collaboration was inspired. The soloist negotiated the often tricky and richly expressive chromatic lines with great assurance, and the flexibility of tempo, so vital in this piece, made for a glorious performance, with seemingly every moment savoured. You would hardly believe this was the same orchestra that had just negotiated the Maxwell Davies; the woodwind transformed their tone and gave some beautifully lyrical solos, and the strings were deliciously warm without sinking into soppy sentimentality. Great musicianship, then, from all concerned. The work may be an acquired taste, and may ramble a little, but it’s encouraging to see Delius being programmed after a period of relative neglect, and I’d say four stars are about right, with five going to the performers.

Petrenko, a Russian, has an obvious affinity with Shostakovich, and now the same can be said of his Liverpool players, for they are recording all the Shostakovich symphonies for Naxos. The recordings to date have won plaudits, including that of the Tenth (review), and the combination of Petrenko and the RLPO is reckoned to be one of the most exciting in the orchestra’s history.

The Tenth Symphony is widely regarded as one of Shostakovich’s deepest works; the long first movement broods as only this composer can, and needs firm control if it is not to sprawl. There could be nothing to complain about in Petrenko’s management of it, or the orchestra’s execution – there was a restlessness throughout, and the fortissimo outbursts were thrilling in the hall, with the RLPO producing a far fuller and more glamorous sound than the rather thin quality of the BBC’s broadcast would suggest for those listening at home. Nevertheless, the orchestra’s timbre was also notable for a particularly icy tone which suited the slow, meditative sections admirably. This was REAL Shostakovich, as Russian as could be.

There was fire and raw excitement in the second movement, reckoned by some to be an evocation of the brutal Stalin, who had recently died. But it has now emerged that a quite different force was at work in the third movement, for the composer had developed a romantic fascination for a young pupil, Elmira Nazirova, twenty years his junior. His own initials D-S-C-H appear frequently as a thematic element in the symphony and we now know that the horn motif, E-A-E-D-A, forms the musically available letters of Nazirova’s first name. When introduced, this motif, often feeling like a distant fanfare in earlier interpretations, felt positively poetic tonight. And then music reminiscent of the first movement returns, all the time questioning; is Shostakovich pondering on what might have come to pass had his romantic obsession not been unrequited? Who knows – so much in Shostakovich will remain a mystery. At any rate, the handling of this nervous, searching music was extraordinarily telling, Petrenko keeping up the icy tension in the quieter passages, but letting rip for the fortissimo section where the two motifs collide.

The last movement’s two main sections were appropriately dark and then brilliantly exciting. The movement’s considerable technical challenges were handled with panache by all concerned, and in the opening section there was fine work from the principal oboist and bassoonist. Of course the enigmas continue, even in the midst of the apparently ebullient music of part two; the music still poses questions, and there’s still a high degree of tension. D-S-C-H to the fore, but still not wholly triumphant, despite a first class offering from the timpanist. It’s powerful, shattering stuff.

This was a five star performance of a five star work – I’d hope all could agree on that! And Petrenko and the RLPO can go home knowing that they took part in one of the very best Proms of the season. Petrenko is a star, and we have simply wonderful orchestras in this country; all deserve our maximum support.

Christopher Gunning