What has emerging British composer Edmund Finnis to do with two Russian giants? The best answer can perhaps be found in the sharp and sophisticated interpretation of a group of talented young musicians, namely the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra. Conducted by the almost equally young and widely praised Vasily Petrenko, GSO gave the UK premiere of Edmund Finnis' Flicker. Then they proposed their interpretation of Shostakovich's Concerto for piano, trumpet and string orchestra, Op. 35, and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, Op. 100, two works that are strongly linked to each other, insofar as Shostakovich witnessed the influence that Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony had on the composition of his concerto.
Before the two Russian masterpieces can make their way through the Barbican hall though, the new piece is offered to the audience. 'Flicker', the OED recites, is 'a rapid, rhythmic variation in the degree or quality of illumination which is perceptible to the eye'. A work of music cannot possibly be perceptible to the eye – considering only its aural manifestation and not the physicality of a live performance. Yet, the OED definition opens an interpretive path among the many possible ones of Ed Finnis' piece. The flickering of his work was almost visible, indeed: there was tension during pauses – silences were loaded; woodwinds were obdurate in their superimposing musical fragments; fiery strings cast an electronic shadow on the musical texture – sometimes recalling an electric instrument's feedback. Stinging metallic trumpets tore everything into pieces and, paraphrasing Ed Finnis' comments in the programme notes, the tottering and insistent quality of the musical patterns moved forward an 'unsettling lack of inherent memory of what has gone before'. At times, though, fragmentation was too pervasive, and a macroscopic sense of re-composition was missing. But the overall impression was of a quivering satisfaction. And the mid air ending was, to quote a friend of mine in the audience, 'just genius'.
A (tormented) relationship between the piano and the orchestra is present in Finnis' work. Yet, it was with Shostakovich's Concerto that the piano-orchestra thread materialised in the night's programme. Shostakovich's piano solo is aggressive, quenching all the trumpet's attempts to minimize with playful echoes the mostly dramatic piano themes. Soloists Martyna Jatkauskaite and Philip Cobb worked perfectly together in a schizophrenic harmony. Hysterical irony runs through the Allegro giocoso, and the violent intertwining between the soloists highlighted this mood. Philip Cobb was particularly moving in giving the perfect sound, a warm shyness, of to most of the trumpet's interferences in the piano soliloquy, echoed by the strings.
The interval was the ritual that signed the arrival of the piece that everybody was looking forward to - one could sense that from comments floating across the Barbican Hall. The four movements of Prokofiev's Fifth, one of the symphonies most often performed, were a tour de force of profound contrasts, ghostlike passages, and humorous martial sections. Writing about the same piece performed at the Royal Albert Hall in August 2007, Hugo Shirley commented on the completeness of Prokofiev's music: his 'compositional mastery almost puts the piece at a disadvantage'. I agree that this is often true of masterpieces. Yet, the GSO's rendition under Petrenko's baton possessed peculiar qualities - the audience left with something to remember specific to that performance. In this interpretation, the brasses were impressive: they seemed to connect directly to the conductor's neat gestures, and approached their parts with smooth elegance. The whole orchestra was almost faultless - only in a couple of occasions cellos weren't tremendously synchronized. Everybody in the hall was enjoying the Prokofiev moment: Petrenko's confidence made him gracefully wave, almost dancing, as he transmitted easiness and enjoyment to the players performing that highly technical piece.
Due to the opening with a glad event - the greeting of Finnis' new piece - and perhaps also due to the youth of the performers, the much debated political undertones of the Russian pieces for once weren't prominent. The political substance was replaced, perhaps, by technical vividness. Had I to summarize this concert in one word, that would be 'precision'. And had I to choose among the most intense moments, these would be all the pianissimo lines that the players wove, letting the audience dip in the whispered sound texture. And even if sometimes there was some colour – some substance? – lacking, the young musicians from Guildhall have demonstrated versatility and exuberance in mastering these pieces. Everyone was satisfied.