United Kingdom Shostakovich, Vasks, Gregorian Chant, Rachmaninov: István Várdai (cello); The Lay Vicars of Westminster Abbey; London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 25.10.2017. (CC)
Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat Op.107
Pēteris Vasks – Dona nobis pacem
Gregorian Chant – Dies irae
Rachmaninov = Symphonic Dances Op.45
Continuing in the LPO’s tradition of innovative programming, the London Philharmonic offered a stimulating juxtaposition of vocal performances against well-known orchestral works. The low lighting for the Gregorian Chant (sung by the Lay Vicars of Westminster Abbey) giving way to the bright lights of the Symphonic Dances (surely intended to be without applause – alas it was not to be) echoed the juxtaposition of Tallis’ Spem in alium with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony under Jurowski earlier this year (review).
Earlier this year, the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto received a powerful yet subtle reading by Sheku Kanneh-Mason at the Barbican. Here it was the rather less expert Hungarian cellist István Várdai in the hot seat. From the soloist’s point of view, the performance took some time to take off, with some rather approximate tuning at the opening. His virtuosity came out in the horn and cello passage, where most cello players slow down for Shostakovich’s demands; not Várdai. While the slow movement at its best is blanched and interior, here it came to life only when the orchestra was allowed to speak outside of its soloist’s soliloquies. The sea-change came with the cadenza, the left hand pizzicatos particularly memorable. The raw edge to the finale from Várdai, too, seemed right. Not quite all of a performance, then, although one that grew into itself. The LPO’s Principal Guest Conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada accompanied with a clear, if large and not entirely eloquent, beat.
The Shostakovich was coupled with a 1996 work for voices and strings by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks, Dona nobis pacem. The three words of the title provide the entire text for this quarter-hour piece. Hypnotic and lush at the same time, Vasks’ individual soundworld is highly effective; string-only passages seemed, in context, to refer back to the slow movement of the Shostakovich in spirit. The piece rose to a glorious climax ad closed with a perfectly-judged pianissimo.
The Dies irae plainchant was beautifully shaped by the seven Lay Vicars of Westminster Abbey (so given the subject matter of the text, the Seven Lay Vicars of the Apocalypse?). The lighting thinned to a spotlight on the seven; the effect was remarkably intimate and intense. The link to Rachmaninov is clear to anyone with the remotest knowledge of that composer’s music; most famously of course the Dies irae powerfully informs the music of the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini. Unsurprisingly it appears in From the Isle of the Dead but also in a host of other pieces, including the Suite No.2 for two pianos and, of course, his final major work, the Symphonic Dances. Orozco-Estrada gave us a remarkably alive, vibrant account of that latter piece that also honoured its innate lyricism, not least in the alto saxophone solo in the first movement (the superb Kyle Horch). Orozco-Estrada structured this first movement intelligently, and it was that over-arching hearing that allowed the music to bend so well while never sounding diffuse. The Valse held some wonderful solo contributions (a surprisingly loud solo violin from leader Pieter Schoeman, and a special solo from cor anglais player Patrick Flanaghan). Again, by judging the trajectory of the finale well, Orozco-Estrada was able to give the opening sighing gestures their full weight; the brass towards the end, playing as a single unit, excelled.
A most stimulating concert, one that moved from disappointment through to a far more satisfying place.