An Intense Russian Extravaganza with the BBC Scottish SO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Denis Kozhukhin (piano), BBCSSO / Alexander Vedernikov (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 3.12.2017. (SRT)

Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1
Shostakovich – Symphony No.11, ‘The Year 1905’

Before this weekend’s concerts, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra had never played Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony. You could have fooled me, because today they turned in the most focused, exciting and soulful performance of the work that it has ever been my good fortune to hear.

The performance’s strength came from two quarters, and the first was the orchestral playing. Over the years I’ve lavished praise on the dark brown Germanic tone that the orchestral strings have cultivated, particularly under the stewardship of Donald Runnicles as their Chief Conductor. Now it turns out that’s equally transferable to the jet black tone of Soviet music too. The violins spend much of this symphony providing texture rather than tune, but on the occasions where they do get to play a melody, such as the march of the second movement, they managed to play it with individuality that combined soulfulness with defiance and power. Even finer, however, were the violas, whose third movement lament for the dead seemed to come from another place altogether; searching, powerful and very deep. The winds, too, managed to make their coarseness sound lyrical, most especially in the angry scurrying that leads into the final bars, and James Horan’s desperate, keening cor anglais solo, the pivot of a finale that focuses mostly on turbulence, will live in my memory for a very long time. The last time I head Shostakovich played like this was when the St Petersburg Philharmonic played in the Usher Hall back in January, and it isn’t overstating the case to put the BBC Scottish next to them in that exalted company.

But the second bolster of success was the judgement and clarity of purpose of conductor Alexander Vedernikov, who paced the symphony like a vast psychodrama, and controlled Shostakovich’s majestic colour palette with consummate skill, making it all look like a typical Sunday afternoon’s work. This is Shostakovich’s most overtly narrative symphony, almost cinematic in its approach to its subject matter, and Vedernikov realised that, crucially, his job was both to tell the story and to evoke the atmosphere. He managed it through careful control of the sound, deploying every effect to just the right level, be it the quiet gong strokes and the ominous rumble of the timpani, or the blood-soaked bite of the strings during the industrial fugue that represents the massacre itself. He’s a storyteller to his fingertips. The first movement raised questions rather than simply painting a scene, and I found myself on tenterhooks to find out what was going to happen next. Those harp strummings felt desperately ominous, but why? And why did those revolutionary songs always sound veiled and dark, never upbeat? Anna Akhmatova famously described them as “like white birds flying against a terrible black sky”: I’ve never quite understood what she meant until tonight.

With such an intense, draining second half, how wonderful to have Tchaikovsky’s first piano concert doing its sunlit magic in the first half, especially when it’s played by the dazzling Denis Kozhukhin. Kozhukhin took my breath away last year when he did both Brahms concertos with the BBCSSO, and this performance confirmed that that was no fluke. He has all the technique and character fearlessly to encompass the fistfuls of octaves that Tchaikovsky demands of the soloist, but he also showed himself to be a remarkably sensitive interpreter of this war horse, beginning right at the start when he arpeggiated the chords that accompanied the introduction’s violin theme. It’s a small gesture, but a remarkably effective one, and that continued into the cadenzas, which were remarkably thoughtful and very musical. Likewise, he was a model of sensitivity in the slow movement, including in the filigree central section, and he played the Rondo with razor-sharp precision, even as his fingers became a visual blur on the keyboard. The orchestra responded with playing of glorious confidence and dynamic warmth, showing Kozhukhin is an interpreter with whom they produce brilliant results.

In short, I can think of few finer musical ways to spend a Sunday afternoon. More, please!

The orchestra did the same programme in Glasgow last Thursday night. You can listen to it here until 30th December.

Simon Thompson

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