Shostakovich: Violin Concerto no. 1; Sibelius: Symphony no. 6, Symphony no. 7

Mikhail Simonyan, Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Järvi

Usher Hall, 23 February 2011 4.5 stars


Shostakovich seems to have become a regular fixture in concert halls lately. Perhaps the passage of time is beginning to erase the ideologically-charged positions taken by listeners and critics of a generation ago, allowing the music to speak for itself. In that respect, tonight's pairing of his first violin concerto with Sibelius was a particularly smart and eloquent idea.

It is probably of little consequence that the two were such near neighbours—Helsinki and St Petersburg being about 250 miles apart—but there is a kind of kinship between their shared mastery of orchestral architecture, which the concerto's opening movement immediately establishes. While not overtly demanding of the musicians, as it begins, it nevertheless requires the impressive precision marshalled by Kristjan Järvi and the RSNO, and the eloquence contributed by Mikhail Simonyan in the soloist's role, in order to develop the intensity with which Shostakovich imbues the score.

There is a brittle intensity, too, about the brilliant Scherzo that follows. The consequence of the composer's curious decision to leave out trumpets and trombones, but to keep the tuba alongside bass clarinet and contrabassoon, is particularly noticeable in the distinctively hoarse colourations here. The orchestra's vivid reading had Mr Järvi hopping like Rumpelstiltskin. The solemn passacaglia that follows again calls for engaged intensity, rounded out by a cadenza that gives the work its rhetorical focus. One might have wanted a little more depth of passion in Simonyan's reading at this point, but that would be a minor quibble, quickly forgotten as the characteristically acerbic finale ran its course.

The idea of pairing the two Sibelius symphonies, as a gambit, perhaps requires further reflection. And then quietly dropping—especially in the form pursued here, which was to play the two continuously, without a break. As a programming idea it solves the problem of finding a way of fitting the seventh into a programme without belittling it, which isn't as easy as it might seem, the work's extraordinary majesty unfolding in a remarkably short space of time. However, the sixth is quite unlike it in important respects. If the seventh is an object lesson in maximising the potential of the bare minimum of material, the sixth is equally an object lesson regarding the thin margin between economy of means and characterlessness.

It isn't that the sixth is without character, but it is—in a peculiar way—unknowable; it has the reticence of a recluse. It is fascinating to hear, and moreover to watch, as the rilles of long melodic lines wash over each other in the opening allegro, building evanescent hints of the more substantial theme that develops along the way, finally emerging in the finale. All the same, there remains a sense of unsated appetite at its conclusion.

That might seem like as good a reason as any to run on into the seventh, and there is no great harm in playing them one after another. But playing both without a break seems to be doing each of them a disservice. The sixth is denied its proper conclusion, and the seventh is being asked to flourish in an artificially crowded space.

Also, it's winter, and people want to cough.

That objection aside, Järvi's reading of the seventh was again impressive. His tempi were confidently expansive, allowing the germinal processes to evolve and flourish with dignified weight and remorseless sense of purpose. It is well enough known that Sibelius composed little apart from Tapiola after this seventh symphony during the remaining thirty-odd years of his life. Many friends and admirers sought word of an eighth, but one might reasonably ask how would you follow the seventh, which seems to summarize not only the composer's own technical concerns but to draw down the Romantic-era pursuit of single-movement structure, diversity infused with precise formal logic. It was a real treat to see it given such a rich and impassioned performance; hopefully the warmth of the audience’s reception will encourage the RSNO to programme further Sibelius.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Mikhail Simonyan, copyright Lisa Marie Mazzucco


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