The LSO were on great form when let loose on Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11 in Edinburgh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2023 [7] – Rachmaninov, Shostakovich: Mikhail Pletnev (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 14.8.2023. (SRT)

The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda © Mark Allan

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2
Shostakovich – Symphony No.11, The Year 1905

It is not a good sign when the main thought going through your head while listening to a concerto is Who’s in charge here? but I couldn’t get that out of my mind during this Edinburgh Festival performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, principally because pianist Mikhail Pletnev and conductor Gianandrea Noseda couldn’t seem to agree.

The warning signs set in early. Pletnev took the opening solo chords at a striking lick, but immediately Noseda slowed things right down for the main string theme, against which Pletnev seemed constantly to be pressing. He consistently seemed out of step with the orchestra for much of the concerto; not always, but when it happened it was pretty damaging, such as in plodding all over the lovely woodwind wind down of the slow movement or inducing some very suspicious tempo changes going from one section of the outer movements to another. He then introduced so much rubato to the second theme of the finale that it would be well-nigh impossible for any conductor to keep pace with it. If I didn’t know better then I would guess Pletnev was playing a game of cat-and-mouse with Noseda, daring him to keep step with him, and Noseda only really seemed comfortable with the passages where either the piano wasn’t playing or the orchestra could drown him out. It took them ages to come onstage for their second bow: they could well have been arguing over which of them had got the tempo right.

That was a shame for lots of reasons, not least the fact that the London Symphony Orchestra’s orchestral tone was absolutely terrific for the concerto. They summoned a huge, full-fat string sound for the sweeping unison opening theme, and a gorgeous rhapsodic opening of the slow movement. And with Pletnev safely out of the way, they were on great form when let loose on Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11. It is often said that this is Shostakovich’s most filmic symphony, but here it sounded more like a collage, with Noseda laying down the different components of the soundscape in a way that rendered them very distinct: icy strings, muted fanfares and drumroll, each of the revolutionary songs … they all seemed to exist in vibrant isolation before being drawn together as a whole. That applied to showpiece individual sections, too, such as the dusky violas and baleful horns of the third movement, and the angrily swirling strings of the second.

Noseda built a growing sense of gathering doom through the first two movements, centring on the attack scene which he paced slowly, almost majestically, thus dialling down the excitement and dialling up the horror. I wasn’t quite as keen on his finale, where the soul-heavy cor anglais solo was far more arresting than the ultimate uprising scene. Still, he understood the huge, unfolding canvas well, and didn’t try to impose too much unity on it when the collage approach worked better.

Then there is the occupational hazard at concert like this: the berk in the back of the stalls who is determined to be the first to shout bravo, even while the music is still hanging in mid-air. The LSO are in Edinburgh for four concerts this week. I hope they don’t all have their final spell broken like this one’s!

Simon Thompson

The Edinburgh International Festival runs at venues across the city until Sunday 27th August click here for details.

3 thoughts on “The LSO were on great form when let loose on Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11 in Edinburgh”

  1. I agree completely about the berk who shouted Bravo! Was he showing off that he knew that the symphony had finished? And as for the creatures who, despite warnings, were obsessed with their mobile phones throughout the concert.

  2. The review is, for me, pretty much spot on. First, the berk on loan from the Proms (I had a much more colourful description) may have known when the symphony ended, but he most certainly hadn’t understood it. Secondly, at the time I thought Pletnev’s account of the Rachmaninov wilful and self-indulgent, despite flashes of delicious fluency, so it’s hardly surprising that there were disjoints between conductor and soloist. Perhaps, playing it for the x-hundredth time he was trying too hard for a fresh view?

  3. You are so right about the idiot at the end spoiling things. What a contrast with Vienna, where I had the joy this summer of hearing a concert in the Musikverein for the first time. A Bruckner symphony, whose end was treated with a few seconds of perfect silence as the wonderful acoustical bloom of the hall died away. And then, but only then, massive applause. A shame (some) people in this country can’t show the same respect for the performing arts.


Leave a Comment