Sunday afternoon concerts in the Usher Hall are an established part of Edinburgh’s classical music scene, and this afternoon sees the penultimate concert in this year’s Sunday Classics programme. Indeed, the concert begins with Scotland’s Jamie MacDougall (tenor and broadcaster) introducing next season’s interesting programme of concerts. This afternoon’s concert is given by the Dresden Philharmonic, one of Germany’s oldest and finest orchestras, under the baton of their principal conductor, Michael Sanderling. They choose a Russian programme with works by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, whose symphonies they have recently recorded.
The concert begins with Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, heard earlier in the week in Scottish Opera’s excellent new production of the opera. The latter production indeed highlights the importance of dance to Tchaikovsky, featuring dancers from Scottish Ballet. Tchaikovsky wrote Onegin in the same year (1877) that he wrote Swan Lake, so good dance tunes were very close to him at that time, and the Polonaise is the tune that symbolises Tatanya’s status as a noble woman at her ball. The string section of the Dresden Philharmonic plays it beautifully.
This is followed by Tchaikovsky’s wonderful violin concerto, which is one of the favourites of the concert repertoire. Here, it is played by the fine young German violinist Arabella Steinbacher, making her Usher Hall debut, and playing a 1716 Stradivarius. This is a very familiar work, and it is difficult to make comparisons with some of the great performers of the past, but Steinbacher certainly plays it very well and seems to be closely in harmony with the orchestra, and in particular, with some very fine flute and clarinet playing.
The concert concludes with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, written in 1937 and given its first performance in 1938. It is important to understand the political background to this symphony. Shostakovich had recently been roundly condemned by Stalin for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk, which he called chaos rather than music. So the composer was well aware that his musical form should please the demands of the socialist realist authorities of the Soviet Union, rather than the modernist direction he was taking. Indeed, he abandoned his Fourth Symphony as he thought it too modern for his critics, and it wasn’t performed until 1961.
His Fifth Symphony is much more conventional in form and content, and was well received when first performed in Moscow. It successfully rehabilitated Shostakovich in the party’s view, and this status was assured when he wrote his mighty Leningrad Symphony No 7, which we heard earlier this year in Edinburgh. The Fifth is nowhere near as exciting as the 7th, and this seems to be a fairly leisurely account by Sanderling and the orchestra, albeit with some fine playing.
It is well received by the rather thin Usher Hall audience, and we are rewarded with an encore of the Intermezzo from Cavellaria Rusticana, a lovely melodic end to a good Sunday afternoon concert.