Blistering Shostakovich and inspired Brahms from the virtuosic Philharmonia  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms and Shostakovich: Vadim Gluzman (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.4.2022. (MBr)

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia (c) Mark Allan

Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77

Shostakovich – Symphony No.7 in C major Op.60, ‘Leningrad’

The Philharmonia Orchestra has for decades been indelibly linked to Dmitri Shostakovich. It was this orchestra which gave the first performances outside Russia of both the Fourth and the Twelfth Symphonies – played within four days of each other at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962. Indeed, the performance of the Twelfth under Gennady Rozhdestvensky still remains one of the most thrilling accounts of any Shostakovich symphony you will find on a CD. It’s a tragic irony, however, that this concert performance given by the Philharmonia of the ‘Leningrad’, itself given its premiere outside Russia by a British orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood in 1942, should upend the entire reason behind its composition in the first place. The symphony has come to be seen as a symbol of Soviet resistance to German aggression; today it is those who faced starvation and death who are now the aggressors.

That does not mean the ‘Leningrad’ has lost its relevance. In fact, as this hugely powerful performance demonstrated the symphony is a reminder that its meaning is really a universal one. There was nothing remotely ordinary about what the Philharmonia Orchestra and Santtu-Matias Rouvali played; it was crushing, defiant and Dantean in its horror; although remarkably luminous and sunny, too, because much of this symphony simply is that. But despite its massive projection of sound – and the decibels of this symphony are hard to match in any other – one found oneself asking other questions.

Rouvali may be a young conductor but he is also a complex one, especially it seems when it comes to Shostakovich. A recent performance he gave in Amsterdam (6 March 2022) with the Concertgebouw of the Twelfth was unusual in the way that he spaced the work and gave it a gravity and depth that has eluded many other conductors. It is the most expansive performance of that symphony I have ever heard. His ‘Leningrad’, however, asked entirely different questions. It is impossible to look at or perform this symphony without looking at it through the prism of history, but its ambiguity is also partly to be illuminated through Shostakovich’s version and interpretation of it. Often there are personal or private meanings that go beyond the historical events – is the ‘Leningrad’ as much about the 872 days the city endured, as much as it is a response to the Fifth Symphony of 1938 and his first denunciation in 1936?

Rouvali does clearly have a response to these two questions and his performance of the ‘Leningrad’ wasn’t just to sit on the fence – as you will find in many recordings of it. His was not the massive, juggernaut approach of the unstoppable assault on the city as applied by extended tempo and lashings of indulgent rubato. It was, however, caustic, bitter and graphic as if fleshed out like Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death.  If there was weight it came through the extraordinary power he got out of the orchestra’s strings. It was the strings in this performance that came to symbolise oppression and suffocation. On the other hand, it was left to the razor-sharp brass to rip through them with devastating force and by the end of the symphony achieve some kind of heroic victory – but over what?

This had not been an especially broad Allegretto – the snare drum, sometimes disappearing beneath the rest of the orchestra like a sinking sunset, was more rapid than usual; occasionally one felt that Rouvali just wasn’t inclined to hang around as he shaped the rhythms and phrases with military precision. The sudden entry of the tam-tam came like a swift execution for the snare drum severing it with unusual cleanness. Cymbal crashes, as clear as a bell, and a thundering bass drum, were remarkably detailed. But the destruction and tragedy was only as wrathful as Rouvali allowed it to be without over-dramatizing it. There is more desolation and despair in the second subject than almost anywhere else in the symphony: Rouvali gave us this in the pain of the bassoon, the brittle pizzicato and the edginess of the piano.

The two central movements – fundamentally a slow scherzo and an adagio – differ considerably in both scale and disruption from the first movement. Finely proportioned, tempi judged to perfection and calm restored Rouvali and the Philharmonia gave an elegant – perhaps too elegant – Moderato. The Adagio is spacious and yet this one moved with such ease it felt rather swift. Rouvali brought poise to it, a surprising lightness to the phrasing, especially in the woodwind. Back onto the snare drum and we got a smoother march than the one from the first movement, though it was by no means less incisive. The Adagio rolls gently into the fourth movement, an allegro, on three tam-tam strokes, here rather feline in their touch. Again, Rouvali gave the movement such precise rhythmic drive, such relaxed tempi that it never hung fire. The build-up to that final coda, riding on its massive crescendo felt entirely organic – an inevitable ending from the first movement’s crushing destruction here resolved into a finale of heroism.

There are, I think, two types of performances of the ‘Leningrad’. The kind that never ignites and just flounders; and the kind that is played with supreme confidence and leaves you entirely exhausted by the end of it. Rouvali and the Philharmonia distinctly fell into the second camp. This was a blistering performance, one that paid off both symphonically and dramatically. The playing – perhaps undeniably too Romantic and at times just too opulent – had enormous power and epic weight. Being entirely overwhelmed by an orchestra at full volume is an exhilarating experience; that sub-woofer feeling concerts hardly ever throw at you. And the virtuosity of the orchestra had been magnificent.

Vladim Gluzman plays Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D (c) Mark Allan

As if that hadn’t been enough, this concert had opened with another large-scale work – Brahms’s Violin Concerto. Originally to have been played by Nicola Benedetti, the Ukrainian-Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman played the concerto instead. I did have some issues with his tone, which I found a little aggressive – especially during the notoriously difficult first entry of the violin where the detached runs and arpeggios felt slightly harsh. Despite the huge scale of this concerto and its orchestral feel at times, it is a remarkably lyrical work and here, rather oddly, Gluzman was at his superb best where high above the stave his feel for expressiveness was meltingly rich and full of colour. In the coda to the first movement he was magnificent at the highest range of the instrument against the counterpoint of the oboe – and again before beautifully done cascading arpeggios. The soaring lines of the second movement were passionate, and much more than just decorative and elegant as the writing merely suggests it needs to be. Much of his decorative phrasing was magnificent – whether he was breaking into triplet rhythms, leads or turns. His double-stops in the gypsy inspired Rondo were superb, too, arpeggios clean and rapid. Both cadenzas had been tight, although that tendency for aggression just came through in some of the phrasing. Even with the imperious instrument Gluzman plays – the Ex-Leopold Auer – to my ears the Brahms Concerto often sounds more naturally convincing played on a Guarneri. Nevertheless, Vadim Gluzman’s Brahms had been beautiful at times – and it was often inspired.

And ‘inspired’ may well sum up the entire evening. Gluzman, the Philharmonia and Rouvali seem to have left a capacity audience with something that felt very much more than just a concert.

Marc Bridle

1 thought on “Blistering Shostakovich and inspired Brahms from the virtuosic Philharmonia  ”

  1. This is a fantastic review – I learnt a lot more about renderings of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, having thought I knew it pretty thoroughly. It was clear from the start that the first movement was not to be as ‘normally’ produced. I agree the snare drum seemed somewhat muted – the percussionist was placed unusually in front of the flutes – which might have prevented the normal clarity of sound achieved and a little disappointed with the rendering of the banal tune which to me seemed lacking in menace – I felt also that the intense overwhelming climax in this movement lacked total coherence – which was puzzling. Thought the second and third movements were beautiful and memorable – and left me feeling they were far better interpreted than normal. Afterwards the final movement was totally overwhelming as usual – but better than ever! Anyway – a brilliant review – grateful thanks to the reviewer.


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