Lighting Effects Heighten Mood Changes in Shostokovich’s Eleventh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Vadim Gluzman (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 05.10.2012 (SRT)

Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 The Year 1905

New season, new music director. Tonight the RSNO welcomed Peter Oundjian for his first concert in charge. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to welcome him to Scotland, with billboard adverts, posters, and a gigantic photograph plastered, pretty effectively, across the side of the Usher Hall. Does he live up to the hype? It’s obviously too early to say, but the signs are good. I’ve said before that Oundjian hasn’t really made an impression on me yet, and some of his previous concerts left me feeling fairly cold. I’m happy to report, though, that tonight’s left me feeling rather more positive.

Programming Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony in your first concert is a bold statement of intent. This huge (and hugely difficult) work puts both orchestra and conductor through the wringer, so how to approach it? Oundjian’s first move was to read out a pre-prepared speech on the work’s background and programme, a move that at first struck me as staid and, frankly, fairly odd, especially when put alongside the famously communicative Stéphane Denève, Oundjian’s predecessor.

Then, however, the symphony began in a hall that was much darkened, the icy strings depicting the Palace Square as through the morning mist. The lights slowly rose, imperceptibly at first, presumably evoking the dawn, and it occurred to me that Oundjian’s speech was, in fact, an actor reading his lines, a theatrical introduction to a theatrical reading of the symphony. The lights were dimmed and brightened at various stages in the work to heighten the changes in mood, such as in the silence that follows the massacre, or the return of the Palace Square music in the finale. It’s the score with something extra added on – “Music Plus”, if you like – and it won’t appeal to everyone. What will be interesting will be to see whether this will be a part of Oundjian’s individual style. After all, later in the season he will perform Ma Vlast with the pictures of a “photo-choreographer” (!) and the final concert will feature part of Walton’s Henry V with an actor.

What of the performance itself? The key thing was the way Oundjian held together and gave some shape to a work that can sound flabby and inconsistent in some conductors’ hands (there’s a strong argument, after all, that it’s simply too long and could have done with a shrewd quantity of editing). The overall arc of Oundjian’s approach tended to transcend the ebb and flow of the score with its regular sequences of tension and resolution. Most impressively, he knew when to hold something back so that, for me, the climax of the symphony came not with the massacre but with the final pages, which sounded altogether more tense and strained than anything that had gone before. In Oundjian’s hands the ending is no celebration of Soviet victory but a grim summation of impending doom (followed by a sudden blackout in the hall). I found it very effective, a culmination as well as a termination, and it made me see his gift for musical architecture in a way that hadn’t struck me before. The orchestra responded by playing out of their skins, the brass and percussion in particular producing moments that raised the roof. But other details stick in the memory too, such as the demonic swirl of the clarinets towards the end of the finale, or the phenomenal tones of the violas as they play the theme for the workers’ funeral march.

Next to this, anything else has to seem pretty minor, though that is to demean a Russlan overture notable for the precision of its string runs. Vadim Gluzman’s approach to the Tchaikovsky concerto was that of a (fairly brazen) showman, technically very impressive and often exhilarating, particularly in the finale. His attack was a touch on the raw side, however, and the more lyrical aspects of the concerto often passed him by, particularly in the first movement. However, the overall sweep of the performance is undeniable and the general effect is mostly very appealing. It’s telling, though, that for the first time in a long while I noticed the really quite lovely contribution that the winds make to this work, a testament both to beautiful playing and a carefully constructed sound world.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available here until Friday 12th October.

Simon Thompson